Music is of interest to cognitive neuroscientists as there is no known evolutionary value. Despite this, it continues to exist across cultures and generations. Like food or sex, music activates the dopaminergic pathway, a reward circuit in the brain responsible for sending the neurotransmitter dopamine throughout the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. When we receive a reward, the levels of dopamine increase in our brain and encourage us to take action to receive greater reward. Similar to how one’s enjoyment of food and taste can vary across individuals, many find that their music preferences can differ significantly from that of their peers. Many of us, when listening to highly enjoyable music, can experience chills, an increased heart rate, or feelings of being “moved”. Dopamine response has been linked to chills felt when listening to a moving piece of music, but what we don’t know is why certain people get chills, while others do not.
A group of researchers at Harvard Medical School wanted to answer this question. To do this they used surveys, behavioural and psychophysiological measures, and the neuroimaging technique diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). DTI allows for the visualization of white matter pathways in the brain by measuring the spreading of water molecules in tissue. For instance, in this study, the researchers looked at pathways between auditory processing areas and emotional and social processing centers in the brain, such as the insula and medial prefrontal cortex. The researchers hoped to observe and make links between these different measures to deepen our understanding of the reward circuit.
Subjects were carefully screened for their emotional response to music, personality traits, their musical experience and their susceptibility and intensity of experiencing chills while listening to music. As subjects listened to their favourite music, researchers recorded psychophysiological measures (i.e. heart rate and skin conductance), reported feelings of chills, and ratings of pleasure. Below are some of the songs that participants experienced chills from. What songs give you chills?
Findings demonstrated that those who are more open to new experiences and those with more years of musical training are more likely to experience an emotional response to music. Individuals had an emotional response were grouped into those who had a physical response (e.g., increased heart rate) and those who had a more abstract cognitive experience such as a feeling of awe. Moreover, the DTI results showed a positive link between tract volume in the right hemisphere to subjects’ reported chills. This means that if one experiences a high level of chills, it is likely that they have a larger, stronger pathway connecting their auditory sensory regions with regions in the brain that process social and emotional information. Variability of white matter tracts is oftentimes a result of myelination, a form of insulation along the neurons that is responsible for increasing the speed of communication between neurons.
This work by Sachs et a.l (2016) has demonstrated how variability in reward responses to music may exist. It contributes valuable knowledge towards our understanding of music’s existence throughout history.
For more, see the original scientific article HERE.
Written by Jocelyne Whitehead
Edited by Stephanie
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