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An "outburst of the soul," the composer Frederick Delius called music. The sounds associated with the form produce "a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without," observed Confucius. It is the art "which is most nigh to tears and memory," noted the writer Oscar Wilde. It turns out that these guys were more on target than we thought. Our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain, concludes a new study produced by a slew of scholars at McGill University. The researchers followed the brain patterns of test subjects with MRI imaging, and identified dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains "at peak emotional arousal during music listening."
Not only that, but the scientists noticed that various parts of the striatum responded to the dopamine rush differently. The caudate was more involved during the expectation of some really nice musical excerpt, and the nucleus accumbens took the lead during "the experience of peak emotional responses to music." In other words, just the anticipation our favorite passage stimulates the production of dopamine. "Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies," the writers conclude.
Chills and thrills To learn more about the music/brain/stimulation process, the McGill researchers followed subjects through the 'chills' or 'musical frisson' response moment. You may have thought that chills were just a subjective concept, but that isn't the case. They involve a "clear and discrete pattern of autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal," the experimenters say, which facilitate "objective verification through psychophysiological measurements." Bottom line: the chills moment "can be used to objectively index pleasure." So these scientists rounded up a cohort of people who had a proven record of getting the "verifiable chills" when listening to their favorite songs. It took a while to find these folks. 217 people responded to an advertisement looking for chill-susceptible music lovers. Each candidate provided ten pieces of instrumental music that set them off in some way. The genres included tango, techno, punk, rock, electronica, jazz, folk, and classical. They then filled out a questionnaire designed to make sure their chills were authentic, and went through a mental illness screening session.
Degrees of pleasure The process produced a cohort of 10 subjects for the actual experiment, who were scanned over two sessions. The participants listened to music that they experienced as pleasurable or to which they felt neutral. They also kept track of their chills themselves, including the "number of chills, intensity of chills and degree of pleasure experienced from each excerpt."
Meanwhile these frisson seekers were MRI scanned during the listening experience, and images that correlated with chill laden moments were examined. "We found that hemodynamic activity in the regions showing dopamine release was not constant throughout the [musical] excerpt, but was restricted to moments before and during chills and, critically, was anatomically distinct," the researchers note. The McGill group says that this experiment is "the first direct evidence that the intense pleasure experienced when listening to music is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system, including both dorsal and ventral striatum."
Thus dopamine "is pivotal for establishing and maintaining behavior," the researchers conclude:
If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.
It also may explain why, as Oscar Wilde suggested, we experience bursts of pleasant recollection while listening to the music that we enjoy. As studies of nicotine use show, the cigarette induced release of dopamine stimulates the remembrance of things past.