Figure 2: Evidence for dopamine release during pleasurable music listening.
Listening to music invokes our emotions, ranging from pleasure to disdain. It is one of our most human experiences, sometimes so profound that words cannot convey the intensity. One of my closest friends, a professor of musicology, once asked me in a moment of self doubt, “You’re a scientist, you do important things…what good is music?” Like many creative souls, he had no idea how important the contribution of art is to our very being.
Canadian scientists have documented in a study published in Nature Neuroscience that not only listening to music, but the anticipation thereof, can release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
How did they select their subjects? According to the paper:
217 individuals responded to advertisements requesting people who experience chills to music; after five rounds of screening, the final group included eight participants. First, individuals provided ten pieces of instrumental music to which they experience intense pleasure and “chills” without restrictions to the genre of music, which included classical, folk, jazz, electronica, rock, punk, techno and tango (see http://www.zlab.mcgill.ca/supplements/supplements_intro.html for samples).
Those who experience chills? Count me in, whether it is Bach, Chopin or yes, even pop stars such as Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant or Linkin Park (odd range, I know.)
What were their conclusions? According to their Abstract:
Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.
Such understatements! Anticipation…rewards…intense pleasure…why music is of such high value? We’ve known it all along, but it’s great to see it so well documented by neuroscientists.