From the brain’s perspective, what good is music? How does music affect the brain? That was the question put forth by Valorie Salimpoor, neuroscientist at McGill University. Her team’s most recent findings were published last month in the journal Science.
The research found that music activates some of the brains most primitive structures as well as its most advanced. For one, music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens—a section of the basal forebrain and a critical piece of the brain’s pleasure center. Among other things, the nucleus accumbens releases dopamine, which rewards behaviors such as listening to music, having sex, and eating. Music also activates the amygdala, one of the most “ancient” sections of the brain, which is a part of the brain that deals with emotional regulation and memory consolidation. Finally, music works on the prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain responsible for abstract decision making. Music is so powerful and central to human emotion because it lights up such a large section of the brain.
The study conducted by Salimpoor’s team involved participants’ brains being imaged with an fMRI while listening to obscure pieces of music. Participants were exposed to the first 30 seconds of selected pieces and then were asked how much they would be willing to pay for it, from zero to two dollars.
Songs that caused the strongest response from the emotional and intellectual parts of the brain were correlated with participants’ willingness to pay more. This implies that music’s allure is not merely from the sensory experience it offers, but also because the brain provides an emotional and intellectual reward for the experience.
Salimpoor explains that part of what makes a song rewarding for the brain is pattern recognition. She states that “As an unfamiliar piece unfolds in in time, our brains predict how it will continue to unfold.” In general, people like it when a piece of music plays out the way they predict it will because, as Salimpoor adds, it’s like “we’ve made a kind of intellectual conquest.”