MONTREAL, Quebec — No matter what people are doing, from driving to working out, many simply have to hear music while they do it. A new study finds the reason for this lies in the reward center of the brain. McGill University researchers say the findings reveal how music can be as addictive as fast food, money, and even alcohol.
Scientists explain that pleasant tunes trigger an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens — the reward center. Using scans, scientists discovered firing up the neurons increased a listener’s enjoyment. On the other hand, pleasure dropped when researchers dampened these nerve cells.
The more participants appreciated the sounds, the more their brain lit up with pleasure. Activity with auditory areas of grey matter “became synchronized,” the Canadian team reports.
Music makes the brain feel good
The nucleus accumbens produces the feel-good chemical dopamine. This neurotransmitter comes from the ventral striatum — the region responsible for decision making. It also holds the key to hedonistic behaviors by controlling a person’s addictive urges.
Despite few obvious biological benefits, humans love music. It’s a mystery that has baffled experts for decades. The study, appearing in JNeurosci, nails down the reason for the first time.
A group of 17 music fans listened to a set of songs while study authors measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. The participants, all young men and women in their 20s, listened to five self selected tracks and ten chosen by an experimenter.
Beforehand, their reward circuit was indirectly excited or inhibited through transcranial magnetic stimulation. The technique involves zapping the brain with small electric currents via a skull cap.
“Exciting the reward circuit prior to hearing music increased the pleasure participants felt when listening to the songs, while inhibiting it decreased pleasure,” study corresponding author Dr. Ernest Mas-Herrero writes in a media release.
“These induced pleasure changes were linked to changes in activity in the nucleus accumbens, a key region of the reward circuit. The participants with the greatest difference in pleasure also showed the greatest difference in synchronized activity between auditory and reward regions. These results indicate interactions between auditory and reward regions drive the pleasure we feel when listening to music.”
Music can be the best medicine
Researchers add music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin.
“Music can act as a powerful motivational force in our everyday life, driving us towards music-related activities at the expense of time, money and effort – from waiting in line for hours in the rain or snow to buy a concert ticket to investing years of training to play an instrument,” Dr Mas-Herrero says in a statement to SWNS.
Unlike drinking or other addictive behaviors, listening to music can be good for you and it’s hard to “overdose.”
Previous studies have discovered it can boost mood and fends off depression. Music also boosts blood flow in ways similar to statins and lowers levels of stress-related hormones.
SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.