Researchers show why music is so addictive

JAN 21, 2011

"Dopamine release may explain why some feel "high" when listening to pleasurable music."

Does your favorite music give you chills every time you hear it? Ever find yourself putting your favorite song on repeat to re-experience the “high” it gives you when you listen to it?

McGill University neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor measured dopamine release and its inducement of chills, increased heart rate and body temperature when participants listened to music they considered pleasurable.

Salimpoor said the group aimed to address two questions: 1) how music first came to be and 2) how music has managed to remain such a significant part of our society despite possessing no clear survival value.

Using a Position Emission Tomography procedure, the team found that dopamine was released while listening to pleasurable music.

“Dopamine is important because it makes us want to repeat behaviors. It’s the reason why addictions exist, whether positive or negative. In this case, the euphoric ‘highs’ from music are neurochemically reinforced by our brain so we keep coming back to them,” said Salimpoor in an email.

“It’s like drugs. It works on the same system as cocaine. It’s working on the same systems of addiction, which explain why we’re willing to spend so much time and money trying to achieve musical experiences."

The study claims to be the first to indicate the “reward” of listening to pleasurable music can induce the tangible, bodily response of dopamine release, which in turn causes certain individuals to feel the sensation of chills or their hair standing on end.

“This is the first time that we’ve found dopamine release in response to an aesthetic stimulus,” said Salimpoor. “Aesthetic stimuli are largely cognitive in nature. It’s not the music that is giving us the ‘rush.' It’s the way we’re interpreting it.”

In another exercise, Zatorre’s group used functional MRIs to better understand when exactly dopamine is released and found that people also experience pleasuring during the anticipation of a pleasurable moment of their music but from an entirely different region of the brain.

“This area is involved in expectations based on previous experiences and leads to anticipation. This suggests that thinking about and anticipating that next note can lead to dopamine release in the most powerfully addictive systems of the brain,” said Salimpoor.

“[The study] represents a remarkable interaction between cognition (and hence culture) on the one hand, and basic biology (dopamine’s physiology) on the other,” said Zatorre.

Though the study offers interesting insight into music cognition, Lawrence Zbikowski, a music theorist who teaches at the University of Chicago, is not very excited about the results.

“The simple fact is that ‘music’ here means ‘that which is produced for consumption through recordings and intended to be in isolation from others,” said Zbikowski, whose work has involved applying cognitive science to music theory and analysis.

“It doesn’t take much reflection at all to realize that this is a rather unusual definition of music, or musical practice. Emotional responses are just one part of the picture,” said Zbikowski. 

Nina Kraus, a Northwestern University professor who teaches neurobiology, has different views. 

“I’m a phenomenal fan of Zatorre and his group’s work. He has single-handedly put the biology of music on the map. It’s tremendously exciting,” said Kraus.“Ten years ago, people had to write a grant as a scientist to study music and the brain and that’s not something the granting agencies even thought of entertaining…. I think he’s really done a lot for the field."

Psychologist Paul Silvia, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his assistant Emily Nusbaum reported late last year that people more open to new experiences seem more likely to feel chills. 

Eight to nine percent of their 196-person sample claimed never to feel chills when listening to music. Though Silvia notes that his work is somewhat different from Zatorre’s, there is a clear link between what the two studies aim to understand.

“We’re really interested the diversity of, rather than the uniformity of the brain. Bizarrely, for some people, this happens almost all the time and these are probably the people who are taking part in Zatorre’s research because the people on the other side essentially couldn’t be participants in that kind of work,” said Silvia. 

“People who never experience [chills], they still listen to music, they still like it, but it seems like they have this beige-colored musical emotion. They’re really missing out on something that’s deeply human, in a way,” said Silvia.

While both teams plan to explore this topic further, in less-controlled, more naturalistic scenarios, it’s clear that both have further tapped into what makes music so essential to human nature.

“Dopamine is not really a ‘feel good’ chemical. Instead, it’s the ‘please do this again’ chemical,” said Salimpoor. “So that’s why it’s involved in addiction. Our brain is telling us to keep doing this again, and we do, which is why music has been around forever.”

Cyberpunk Bodhisattva

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