Music that makes you feel good

Behind the Headlines

Monday January 10 2011

The brain releases the 'reward chemical' dophamine when we hear music we like

Our “favourite music evokes the same feelings as good food or drugs” reported The Guardian. It said that scientists have found that our brains release the “rewards chemical” dopamine in response to hearing music we like, similar to the brain’s response to delicious food or drugs such as cocaine.

This study looked at brain scans of eight volunteers as they listened to pieces of instrumental music that they found pleasurable and that gave them “chills” (also known as "musical frisson", or chills down the spine), and another that they did not find as pleasurable. Their brains were found to release more dopamine when they listened to the intensely pleasurable music. The study had very stringent selection criteria, was very small and used young healthy volunteers. Therefore, the results may not be representative of the general public as a whole.

Although of general scientific interest, these findings do not have any immediate medical implications.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from McGill University and other research centres in Canada. It was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, a Jeanne Timmins Costello award, and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Neuroscience.

The study was reported by BBC News, the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and The Guardian, who generally reported this study accurately. BBC News gives the most information about the methods of the study.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was an experimental study looking at the effects of music on the brain and the nervous system. The researchers say that the human experience of pleasure in response to stimuli such as food, psychoactive drugs and money is related to the release of dopamine in the part of the brain associated with motivation and reinforcement of behaviour.

The researchers wanted to test whether there is a similar response to more abstract stimuli such as music, which is not necessary for survival (as food is) and does not directly act on the nerves in the brain (as psychoactive drugs do).

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers advertised for volunteers who found that certain pieces of music gave them the “chills”. The 217 volunteers who responded were asked to name 10 instrumental pieces of music that gave them the chills and that could be used in the experiment. They were then subjected to five rounds of screening, aimed at finding people who repeatedly felt the chills, regardless of environment, or the number of times they had heard the music. The final round of screening selected those people who also showed a physiological response to their selected pieces of music (such as a change in heart rate or breathing rate). People with a history of medical illness, psychiatric illness or substance abuse were not eligible. The screening resulted in 10 people (five men and five women) being asked to participate. The selected participants were between the ages of 19 and 24 and two were not included in the final analysis due to discomfort during the experiment.

During the experiment, the successful volunteers were injected with a chemical that illuminated how much dopamine there was in their brains during a brain scan. They also had their heart rate, breathing rate, sweat levels, blood flow and skin temperature measured during these experiments. These measurements indicate emotional arousal. The volunteers also had a different kind of brain scan to look at how activity in the brain changed over time in relation to when they felt the chills. In this part of the experiment, the volunteers were asked to press a button when they felt chills.

The scans and measurements were taken while the volunteers listened to music that they had said gave them chills, and again while they listened to other volunteers’ music selections that did not have the same emotional effect on them. They were asked to rate the number of chills, their intensity and the degree of pleasure experienced when listening to each piece of music.

 

What were the basic results?

On average, the participants felt 3.7 chills for each of their selected pieces of music. The more pleasurable a person said a piece of music was the more chills they felt. Objective measurements of pleasure or emotional arousal also showed that listening to a selected pleasurable piece of music resulted in increased heart rate, breathing and sweating.

The participants’ brain scans showed increased dopamine released in the brain when they were listening to the selected pleasurable music than when listening to the control piece of music. In the second set of brain scans, the researchers found that the areas of the brain that were releasing dopamine in response to the music were active mainly just before and during the person feeling a chill. The areas of the brain that were active just before and during the chill were different. An area called the caudate was more involved in the “anticipation period” just before the chill, and an area called the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the chill.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that experiencing intense pleasure in response to music can cause a release of dopamine in the brain. The study found that dopamine can also be released in anticipation of listening to the pleasurable music. The researchers say that their results “help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies”.

 

Conclusion

This research has investigated the effects of listening to music we enjoy on the brain and nervous system. The study had very stringent selection criteria, was small, and used young healthy volunteers, therefore the results may not be representative of the general public as a whole. Although of general scientific interest, these findings do not have any immediate medical implications.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Favourite music evokes same feelings as good food or drugs. The Guardian, January 10 2011

How the sound of a favourite song retunes our bodies to feeling good. Daily Mail, January 10 2011

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll... music 'chills' explained. Daily Mirror, January 10 2011

Music 'releases mood-enhancing chemical in the brain'. BBC News, January 10 2011

Links to the science

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 2011, published online January 9

 

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