It turns out that “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” have more in common that we thought. According to a new study, published in Nature Neuroscience, demonstrates for the first time that music causes the release of dopamine in the brain, just like other pleasurable stimuli, such as food, drugs, and sex.
Most interesting is that even the anticipation of a particular part of a song results in the release of dopamine, the authors report. ”This is what music theorists have been telling us for centuries,” said Robert Zatorre, a neuropsychologist at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, and senior author on the study — that a resolution of dissonance or the crescendo of a song affects the listener emotionally.
To assess the biological mechanism behind a pleasurable musical experience, the team conducted PET and fMRI brain scans while measuring the “chills” — aka changes in temperature, skin conductance, heart rate and breathing — that participants felt in response to their favorite songs, which ranged from classical to jazz to techno and even bagpipes.
The researchers found that during peak emotional moments, when patients got the “chills,” dopamine was released in two areas of the brain: First, in the caudate, an important part of the brain’s learning and memory system, during anticipation of a musical peak, then during the peak experience, in the nucleus accumbens, a key site of reward and pleasure pathways.
The results may explain why music is so highly valued in society, said Zatorre, a trained organist who doesn’t listen “to anything composed past 1750,” he laughs. ”Art in general has survived since the dawn of human existence, and is found in all human societies. There must be some strong value associated with it,” he added. ”This study is maybe one step in the direction of acknowledging that there’s a whole lot more out there to understand about what is valuable and rewarding in the human experience.”