Brains are alive with the sound of music

McGill research finds connection between music and dopamine

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According to a study conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University (MNI), listening to music we love stimulates production of the pleasure chemical, dopamine, in our brain. This is not a new idea: listening to music can be described as one of the most intensely pleasurable human experiences, causing both states of craving and euphoria. There hasn’t been evidence of a dopamine release occurring with music because it was too hard to measure… until now. Lead investigator Valorie Salimpoor managed to combined techniques of functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography to get impressive results. Along with other researchers, Salimpoor, a PhD student in the MNI lab of Robert Zatorre, a professor of neurology at McGill, was able to estimate exactly when and where dopamine was released while listening to music.

Stimuli that are necessary for survival – like food and sex – involve a reward system in the brain called the dopamine reinforcement circuitry. This circuit is ancient and has evolved to reinforce behaviour necessary for survival. The demonstration that an abstract reward, such as music, can lead to dopamine release suggests why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so prevalent across human society.

The team at the MNI measured dopamine release in response to music that induced “chills”: changes in heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, and temperature. Chills are byproducts of intense or sudden autonomic nervous system arousal, and some people get them very consistently when they experience intense pleasure in response to music. This allowed researchers to objectively identify when participants of the study were experiencing emotional arousal.

This innovative study showed that two separate brain circuits are involved in the release of dopamine at different phases of music listening. Researchers found that during the peak chills, dopamine was released in the ventral striatum, the same area involved with the consumption of cocaine and other intense pleasures. Furthermore, during the anticipation period, dopamine was released in the dorsal striatum, which is connected to the frontal cortex and other “thinking” areas of the brain. These areas are involved in taking information from our environment and integrating it with information that is already stored in our brain.

“Based on all the experience you have about how sounds are supposed to be formed, and how you would like them to be formed together, it’s almost as if you create an anticipatory craving of a note,” Salimpoor explained in an interview with The Daily. “When you’re listening to music, you’re not listening to it in real time, especially for a song you like. You’re usually a few seconds ahead of the music, but you still need to hear it – you need that auditory stimulation. And that’s where the pleasure comes in. It’s like expectation, then confirmation.”

Although dopamine is generally thought to be involved in anticipation, there isn’t only an anticipatory component to music because it’s not pleasurable to hear a single note. But since music is a whole bunch of single notes organized in time, the researchers concluded that it was the time component that made the listening experience so pleasurable. “It’s kind of like a roller coaster in a sense, because you go on it to experience emotions and feelings, but it’s perfectly predictable,” Salimpoor said. “You know what’s going to happen, but it still surprises you and you still enjoy that surprise.”

Technically, people could listen to their favourite part of the song over and over again, but nobody does that because the buildup of anticipation is what’s important. In the case of music, dopamine plays a role in both the anticipation of music and the realization of these expectations .

When people are asked why they enjoy listening to music so much, it always comes down to the enhancement of emotions. Imagine watching blockbuster movies like Titanic or Jaws without a soundtrack. Would people really be able to feel the passion, fear, and distress of the characters without the sumptuous, thematic soundtracks that shake your heart and shuffle your mind?

“This is the question I always get asked: Are we addicted to music?” Salimpoor said. “I say yes because look at how much money our society spends on going to concerts, buying music, buying speakers, iPods, and anything to basically enhance these musical sensations. And so yes, I do think we’re at least mildly addicted to music. And now here’s the physiological proof that music is working in our systems.”