The Heavy Metal Brain

By Neuroskeptic | September 25, 2017 1:17 pm

Get your earplugs ready because this post is metal. Last week, a group of neuroscientists published a paper reporting altered brain activity in heavy metal lovers.

The paper raised a few eyebrows, not least for its statement that metal fans show “disorders of behavioral and emotional cognition. It’s already attracted some convincing critical comments on PubPeer. To my mind, the paper is a perfect example of a flawed neuroimaging study.

Researchers Yan Sun and colleagues scanned 40 self-reported metal fans and a comparison group of 31 classical music lovers. fMRI was used to record brain activity in the resting state – “participants were instructed to relax, keep their eyes closed, stay awake, and avoid active thinking activities.”

Some differences between the metal- and classical-loving brains were found, e.g. as shown in this image (the color doesn’t seem to have come out properly):

heavy_metal_brainVarious brain areas were more or less active, or more or less functionally correlated with each other, in the metal fans. But what do these differences mean? This is where it all gets a bit silly.

Sun et al. come up with explanations for how each neural difference relates to liking metal. For example, regarding a brain area called the PreCG, which was more active in metal fans:

PreCG is mainly responsible for the movement of the tongue [14]. Compared with classical fans, metal fans are more willing to sing and the movement of the tongue will change [3], which may affect the PreCG.

Recall that the participants were resting, not singing or listening to music, during the scan. Bear in mind also that although the PreCG does indeed control the tongue, it controls the entire body as well.

Meanwhile, metal fans showed reduced activity in a different area, the SFGmed. Sun et al. interpret this result as follows:

The Mozart effect shows that classical music can improve the cognitive performance of the listeners and increase the activation of the corresponding brain areas [7], whereas SFGmed is in charge of individual cognitive control [17].

In other words, classical music improves cognition (allegedly), and the SFGmed is a brain area involved in cognition, so the SFGmed is more active in classical fans. Really.

This approach to interpreting fMRI results is very common, but it’s essentially just hot air: post hoc, unfalsifiable, circular reasoning. Whatever the fMRI results happened to be, it would be possible to come up with a functional ‘explanation’. And if your theory is vague enough to explain anything, it really explains nothing.

Suppose the occipital cortex had been more active in metal fans. Well, this is a visual area, and metal concerts often feature pyrotechnics and other visual effects! Suppose the classical fans had shown increased PreCG activity, instead of less. Well, the PreCG controls hand movements, and classical conductors wave their hands to direct the music! Maybe the classical fans were thinking about their favorite conductor. And so on.

As I’ve written previously,

Each brain region has numerous functions, many of which are sufficiently vague (“social cognition”, “emotion”) to cover almost anything… it’s easy to invent a story linking these to the whatever task is going on. It’s like astrology. Astrological ‘readings’ always seem accurate because they can be made to fit anyone.

Anyway, perhaps I’m biased here, because I’m a big fan of neuro-metal bands like MRIron Maiden, White Matter Snake, and Motörcörtex.


  • Ballistic Bells

    Thanks for uncovering the pseudoscience behind the supposed power of music to increase cognitive ability in humans. It’s a seemingly endless task to sift through the ridiculous claims being made and real scientific facts that we can use to improve our lives.

    • teknowh0re

      Well to be fair, while this study is absolute garbage based only is bias, there ARE studies showing that people who are specially touched by music while experiencing it are more intelligent, and far more creative.
      But its involving all music.
      There is a small group of the population who experience music differently than most people. They get chills up their spine from certain harmonies, certain types of music, or they experience the music so deeply, a song can almost put them in a semi catatonic state.

  • Uncle Al

    Jazz is the Great Destroyer, DOI:10.1111/hoeq.12212,
    ISBN-10:1611473632, and

    …one line

    Heavy Metal? Mostly harmless,

    … Play the anvil with a knuckle-buster wrench, ding-ding!
    …Latin heavy metal.
    …Heavier metal; whistle for it.
    …Kinda heavy on the upkeep.
    …Carbon footprint re Industrial.

  • smut clyde

    Compared with classical fans, metal fans are more willing to sing

    Authors are clearly unacquainted with opera fans.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Or with the extensive genre of metal which includes no singing but rather growling which fans rarely attempt to imitate.

      • John

        You’ve clearly never been to the camp grounds of a Heavy Metal Festival….

      • teknowh0re

        DUDE, i am a big fan of your blog here, but you are way off on this one! Every one of the THOUSANDS of metalheads Ive known most definitely growl along with the music!!!! Whether theyre good at it, is another matter. But we all do it pretty much. Even WOMEN.

      • Simone Gastaldon

        I confess: I do try to growl along, especially during live gigs.

  • Денис Бурчаков

    Can’t wait for study concerning Justin Bieber effect – an underrated cause of severe brain rot.

  • CL

    On a more serious note, I find this section of the discussion troubling: “this may be related to the disorders of behavioral and emotional cognition in heavy metal music lovers.”
    They show no evidence of any behavioral alterations, so this is just prejudice. Considering that this was funded by the “13th Five-year Plan’ Project of education science in Liaoning Province”, this smells a bit like a broader censorship strategy.
    The metal scene in China is quite lively and relatively free of censorship, but some bands have been shut down when they have been perceived as too political. For example, the band Punkgod is exiled to Sweden after supporting Taiwan independence

  • thebasics

    These explanations are reminiscent of the pseudoscientific Freudian explanations of behavior that dominated psychiatry for so long.

  • smut clyde
  • john rittel

    The sample size is WAY too small to be a scientific paper, although it may have scratched the surface of something that could be valid.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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