Music and dopamine

Pretty cool story on Quirks and Quarks a couple weeks ago about the ways in which our brains respond to music.  And here’s a nice summary of it in the Guardian:

In the experiment, participants chose instrumental pieces of music that gave them goosebumps, but which had no specific memories attached to them. Lyrics were banned because the researchers did not want their results confounded by any associations participants might have had to the words they heard.

The pieces chosen ranged from classical to rock, punk and electronic dance music. “One piece of music kept coming up for different people – Barber’s Adagio for Strings,” said Salimpoor. It was the favourite classical piece and a remix of the tune was the most popular in the dance, trance and techno genres.

As the participants listened to their music, Salimpoor’s team measured a range of physiological factors including heart rate and increases in respiration and sweating. She found that the participants had a 6-9% relative increase in their dopamine levels when compared with a control condition in which the participants listened to each other’s choices of music. “One person experienced a 21% increase. That demonstrates that, for some people, it can be really intensely pleasurable,” she said.

In previous studies with psychoactive drugs such as cocaine, Salimpoor said relative dopamine increases in the brain had been above 22%, while a relative increase of up to 6% was experienced when eating pleasurable meals.

Salimpoor and her colleagues concluded: “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 hedonistic 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.”

So, music you love– just a bit more enjoyable than food you love.  But, at least for most of us, no cocaine.  Personally, I do love Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but I think I might have chosen the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th.  What was kind of cool (as I learned in the interview) was that even among those who brought in techno as their favorite music, the most popular was actually a techno version of Adagio for Strings.  I think there’s something quite emotionally resonant in the way in which this particular music just builds and builds before resolution.  Anyway, pretty interesting stuff.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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