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It's Nice to Have a Friend (GMCU's Version)

by Maya Gal

art by Caitlin O’Neil

Are you ready to embark on a musical adventure that will make your heart skip a beat and supercharge your cognitive prowess? Get ready to dive headfirst into the enigmatic realm of cryptic lyrics and intimate storytelling that captivates the heart and stimulates the mind. You are on the cusp of a world where poetic strands weave a mystical escape that resonates deeply with the very essence of human connection, allowing us to dive deep into an intensely emotional experience. So, put on your favorite Taylor Swift album, grab your glittery pen, and prepare to decode the mysteries that lie within her melodies as we explore how being a Swifty isn't just a fandom—it's a journey of emotional resonance, cognitive enrichment, and self-discovery.

The Essence of Fandom: What is a Fan?

A fan, in the broadest sense, is an individual with an intense admiration or enthusiasm for a particular subject or activity. This can range from a sports team to a musical artist but fandom elevates the experience to a community level [1]. Shared passion becomes a platform for social interaction, identity formation, and introduces a sense of belonging where fans can display their allegiance by wearing fandom colors, participating in group activities, and congregating for events [2, 3].

Music fans engage in communal activities, which often emphasize creative expression like producing fan art or writing fan fiction in addition to attending concerts or collecting memorabilia. During the era of the Beatles, their influence was so profound that it even permeated fans' styles, with countless enthusiasts adopting the iconic "Beatles haircut" — a craze underscored by the popularity of Donna Lynn's 1964 single, "My Boyfriend Got a Beatle Haircut" [4]. It was through these shared expressions and experiences that individuals found a sense of belonging, thus marking a significant evolution from mere admiration of a band to an immersive, shared journey within a global community [5].

The phenomenon has only grown since. As one of the most celebrated artists of the 21st century, Taylor Swift has cultivated one of the largest and most dedicated fanbases in the music industry. Swift's lyrical narratives, public persona, and actions, such as her stance on artist rights and social issues, create a multi-dimensional experience for her fans [6]. Her concerts, characterized by communal singing, exchange of symbolic items like friendship bracelets, and shared anticipation, foster interpersonal connections and a sense of belonging [7]. The Swifty fandom experience is renowned for its community spirit, creating an environment that extends out of just musical enjoyment and into the enrichment of fan's mental and cognitive health.

Neural Tapestry: Music as the Weaver

“People haven’t always been there for me, but music always has,” Taylor Swift once confessed. This sentiment, a universal echo, reverberates through the hearts of many, holding a mirror to our own vulnerabilities and intertwining musical pleasure with the shaping of our cognitive functions, emotional landscapes, and social interactions. 

The hippocampus, a region crucial for memory consolidation, shows heightened activity when we engage with music [8]. In addition to the catchiness of the lyrics, the patterns and sequences of the melodies in music serve as potent mnemonic devices, aiding memory and recall [8]. Listeners often find themselves transported by the sheer musicality of Swift’s tracks, evoking distinct memories and emotions. This musical engagement, which evokes specific memories, bolsters neural plasticity—the brain's ability to reshape itself by creating new neural connections—and fortifies memory structures [9]. Not only does music help with recalling episodic memories, but also with working memory. This could involve working memory operations, which are cognitive processes that are used to temporarily store and manipulate information [10]. A study that presented music as a non-pharmacological treatment to improve cognitive function showed that music significantly improved general cognitive function, executive function, and episodic memory [11].

Music, particularly when it is pleasant to the listener, has been found to activate specific areas in the brain such as the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), anterior superior insula, and ventral striatum [10]. These activations are indicative of a complex interplay between cognitive and emotional processes [10]. The IFG activation, for example, may be associated with the analysis of the musical structure and syntax - the rules and patterns that make up the music [10]. Moreover, music's influence extends to areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-level activities like planning and decision-making [12]. Structured musical elements can synchronize with neural activities in this region, potentially enhancing focus and attention [12]. By allowing Taylor Swift’s compositions to captivate your prefrontal cortex, you are essentially training your brain’s ability to focus––potentially helping you the next time you try to pay attention in class.

Exploring the intersection of music and language, we find that our ability to focus and analyze linguistic sounds is improved by listening to music. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and employ the sounds of a spoken language, which is crucial for reading, writing, and communicating [13]. A study that compared the effects of phonological, music, and sports training in preschoolers found that music training improved phonological awareness to the same extent that phonological training did [13]. Essentially, playing and listening to music improved the language ability of preschool-aged children as much as a well-established program centered around linguistic education did [13]. The linguistic richness of music, particularly in songs with complicated lyrics like Swift's, stimulates language centers in the brain, such as Broca's area (involved in speech production) and Wernicke's area (involved in understanding speech), thereby refining our linguistic and interpretative skills [14].

From Appreciation to Obsession: The Neuroscience of Musical Reward 

Intriguingly, music can engage the brain's reward system and tap into the mesolimbic pathway. Here, pleasure is intertwined with dopamine activity in regions like the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and the dorsal and ventral striatum—key players in reward processing [15]. This engagement raises a compelling question: why does our brain equate music, an abstract series of tones, with tangible rewards that offer survival benefits? The answer lies in our advanced cognitive processing, allowing us to savor music as a rewarding experience, despite its lack of direct biological advantage. This reward perception is highly subjective, reflected in the wide array of musical tastes across individuals [15].

The neuroscience behind this ‘obsession’ is complex. The NAc, alongside the basolateral amygdala (BLA), orchestrates our behavioral responses to reward-predictive cues, such as the anticipation felt during a concert or the emotional high from a new album [16]. Neurons in both structures that encode reward-predictive cues may underlie the decision to respond to such cues. The BLA acts as a neural integrator, processing reward values and emotional responses, and primes the NAc in anticipation of these musical rewards, thereby intensifying the fan experience [17]. The NAc then plays a critical role in our experience of pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement learning by responding to these pleasurable stimuli [17].

For instance, during a concert or while listening to a new album release, fans are exposed to numerous cues that predict rewards—the pleasure of hearing their favorite song or the anticipation of the artist’s performance. The BLA neurons become active before the NAc neurons, suggesting that the BLA might be responsible for priming the NAc when fans encounter these reward-related cues [16]. This could be seen as the BLA acting as a

“messenger” that tells the NAc to get ready for rewards, which then drives fans’ behavior to seek those rewards [16].

This intricate network of brain regions, which also includes the amygdala for emotional processing and the prefrontal cortex for decision-making and social behavior, becomes particularly activated by the stimuli associated with music and fandom. Experiences with stimuli that elicit strong emotional responses can enhance the physiological outcome in BLA, which could explain why fans form such strong attachments to their favorite artists [17].

Group inclusion within a fandom further activates specific brain regions related to reward and social cognition, implicating the ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex. Social connections, such as those experienced within a fandom, are reinforced by the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is linked to the brain's reward system, and oxytocin, known as the "bonding hormone," crucial for social attachment and cooperative behaviors within the group [18].

This biochemical reaction not only enhances the pleasure derived from the music but also contributes to the robust engagement with the artist and the community, thereby solidifying the state of being a fan [19]. Through these mechanisms, what begins as a simple appreciation for an artist’s music can develop into a full-fledged fandom, characterized by a shared sense of identity and a collective emotional journey.

Striking a Chord: The Emotional Journey of Music

Becoming a fan doesn't usually happen overnight. It's usually a slow journey that starts with liking a few songs and ends with feeling. Imagine someone who's heard a couple of Taylor Swift's hits now and then, never really engaging beyond the occasional hum or tap of their foot. They know she's popular, of course, but they've never considered themselves a "fan." Then, one day, they hear "All Too Well" while going through a tough breakup. The line, "And I know it's long gone, and that magic's not here no more, and I might be okay, but I'm not fine at all" hits differently. The raw emotion in the lyrics, and the vivid storytelling that paints a picture of love and loss, makes them feel like Taylor has crawled into their head and described exactly what they're feeling. Now, they are hooked, searching for more of her music, diving deeper into the lyrics, and unable to get enough.

Music triggers an emotional response within the amygdala, the brain’s hub for emotional processing [15]. Swift’s diverse musical repertoire elicits a broad range of emotions, from joy to sorrow, underscoring the influence of music on our emotional states. This connection extends beyond the psychological realm; it’s physiological as well. The act of listening to music triggers a cascade of neurochemical events, leading to the release of dopamine and oxytocin, contributing to the pleasure music offers [20].

Additionally, the activation of Rolandic opercular areas, regions of the brain implicated in taste, touch, and emotional processing, suggests the engagement of what are known as mirror-function mechanisms. Several studies have reported a relationship between the Rolandic operculum and emotion, with its mean diffusivity positively correlated with indices of empathizing-cooperativeness [21, 22]. These mechanisms are thought to be involved in our ability to understand and empathize with others by mirroring their actions or emotions in our brains. In the auditory domain, mirror neurons discharge in response to the sound of action in the same way they would respond to executing the action. In the context of music perception, this could mean that listening to pleasant tunes might stimulate our brain in a way that prepares us to produce similar sounds, almost as if we are singing along in our minds. This suggests that when hearing Swift’s music your mirror neurons can cause you to experience that moment in the same way as if you were singing yourself. This neural process sparked by music could provide a neurobiological basis for why music can serve as a surrogate for social interaction and emotional support. 

Neurophenomenological research, which merges neuroscience and the study of lived experiences, indicates that comforting music can stimulate neural pathways akin to those involved in empathy [23]. This concept is further explored by Schäfer et al., who found that self-selected music, whether comforting or distracting, significantly reduced feelings of loneliness and increased empathy [24]. To test this, the study induced sadness in participants through a guided imagery session, and then individuals underwent a listening task that involved either comforting or distracting music that was self-selected by participants. The study found that musical engagement seemed to enable empathy systems, as quantified by the Brief Mood Introspection Scale (BMIS), by activating parts of our brain

associated with understanding and sharing the feelings of others [24]. Their study supports the idea of music as a surrogate for social interaction and emotional support, highlighting the intense emotional resonance and connection that music can provide [24, 25].

Returning to our example, while listening to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well”, your amygdala will be triggered by the poignant lyrics and melody of the song, evoking strong emotional responses. This could activate the BLA and influence how you perceive and remember this song. Meanwhile, your prefrontal cortex could be engaged as you decide to share your thoughts about the song on social media. In essence, becoming a fan is an intricate interplay of psychological identification, neurological responses, and social interactions. It's a testament to the human desire for connection and the power of shared experiences in shaping our identities.

The Social Tapestry of Fandom: Group Psychology in Fandom

Historically, social groups were critical in facilitating resource sharing, mutual defense, and emotional support necessary for human survival [26]. This primal basis for collective behavior has evolved into complex societal structures, including modern phenomena like fandoms. 

In social psychology, an "in-group" refers to a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as a member, while an "out-group" is a social group with which an individual does not identify [27]. These categorizations significantly influence our behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions, leading to phenomena such as "in-group favoritism" and "out-group derogation" [27].

Out-group derogation sometimes happens when individuals outside of the group may be devalued or discriminated against [27]. This can lead to gatekeeping, exclusion, or conflict between rival fandoms. This can also be as nuanced as preferring to only befriend someone who is also a Swifty. Conversely, in-group favoritism can bring people together. Since Travis Kelce, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, entered the picture, we are seeing a great example of fandoms coming together. Taylor Swift fans are starting to watch Kansas City Chiefs games and many are wearing their football jerseys to the show. Practices common in the Swifty fandom such as going to shows together, meeting new people, and exchanging bracelets with strangers encourage a flexible in-group. 

As fans get to know the music and the Swifty world, many begin to feel they have developed a true relationship with the one some call “Mother.” Especially given the autobiographical nature of Taylor’s music and her kindness, seen in her constant interactions with fans in a loving way. These parasocial relationships fans form with artists through social media can be potent. Fans often perceive their favored celebrities as 'friends' due to the intimate access social media provides, blurring the line between artist and audience. 

Parasocial interactions, especially during the pivotal adolescent years, can play a crucial role in identity formation and the development of autonomy. A study on early adolescents highlighted that many view celebrities, especially prominent figures like Swift, as relationship partners [28]. This aligns with Erikson's concept of secondary attachments: during the adolescent phase known as identity vs role confusion, individuals explore their identity and how they fit into their environment. At this stage teens can form bonds with distant, non-reciprocal figures, providing a safe space for exploring their evolving identity. Such relationships allow these young fans to navigate diverse emotional terrains without immediate real-world consequences, deepening their emotional commitment [28]. For Swifties, the emotional connection might be intensified by Taylor's candid and autobiographical lyrics.

Bridging the Distance: The Unifying Power of Music Fandoms on Social Media

While social media can often be an isolating place, platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have broken down the geographical barriers of fandom, allowing fans from around the world to unite in their admiration for artists by expressing their devotion, creating content, and engaging directly with artists and fellow fans.

Over the past few weeks, fans have been engaging online about Taylor’s most recent love interest, Travis Kelce. Fans are coming together to analyze body language, longing stares, and picking out details as small as hand placement. Through social media, this in-group just got a little bigger. This engagement is not just social; it's neurological. When fans interact online, receiving validation through 'likes' and 'shares,' they experience a surge of dopamine, mirroring the brain's reward system activation typically associated with pleasure and reinforcement [29]. This neurochemical reward motivates fans to continue seeking out these positive online interactions, creating a loop of social media engagement and fandom participation.

With social media platforms, Swifties are more than just Taylor Swift fans; they are a community that experiences, discusses, and celebrates music collectively. The shared anticipation for new releases, collective euphoria of live performances, and ongoing dialogues within these fandoms create shared experiences that alleviate isolation. These digital spaces become sanctuaries of connection, offering a sense of belonging and mutual understanding. 

Beyond the solitary enjoyment of music, it is the collective spirit of fandoms that serves as a potent antidote to loneliness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the act of sharing musical experiences, facilitated by fans coming together, showcased the power of fandom to transcend physical isolation. From Italians singing from balconies to global icons streaming live concerts, music became a universal language of resilience and unity [30]. These gatherings, rooted in fan culture, reinforced the human desire for connection, transforming music into a shared endeavor that combats social isolation and fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity [31]

As we consider the journey from musical appreciation to deep-seated fandom, it becomes clear that the relationship fans have with artists like Taylor Swift and the community created from this appreciation is multifaceted, encompassing neurological responses, emotional processing, social interactions, and cognitive enhancements. The narrative of fandom is not just about the music itself, but about the rich, interconnected experience it creates, echoing the sentiment that while people may not always be there, music—and the communities it builds—always will.


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