On music and pleasure

The people who slowly filtered into room W201 for an afternoon seminar on music and the brain couldn’t help but notice the noise of construction that intermittently interrupted conversation. For some, the sound of power tools would be enough to drive them away, but the group of cognitive neuroscientists who had gathered seemed to take it in stride. “Maybe we’re part of a social experiment,” a few of them offered. The talk of possible experiments continued as the seminar was moved to a quieter and smaller room. Do people ask more questions in a small room than in a large room? (The consensus hypothesis seemed to be that the intimacy of a small room would make people feel more comfortable about asking questions.) The real experiments under discussion, however, had nothing to do with room size but were all about how and why people experience pleasure when they listen to music.

As Valorie Salimpoor, a PhD student working with Dr Robert Zatorre, explained, why we listen to music at all is a mystery. What is it about a sequence of tones that brings us pleasure? It is not like other “pleasure-producing stimuli.” It has no biological value (like food, for example), it comes with no tangible rewards, and, despite the existence of self-professed music junkies, listening to music is not known to be addictive. So what does listening to music do to us?

Salimpoor set out to test the idea that listening to music gives us pleasure by affecting our emotions. The problem with studying emotional response is that emotions are subjective. Salimpoor needed an objective measurement of pleasure in order to study the effects of music so she looked at changes in people’s autonomic nervous systems, such as changes in body temperature and heart rate, while they were listening to music that they enjoyed. Volunteers for the study were chosen if they experienced pleasurable chills in response to a piece of instrumental music. Not everyone is lucky enough to get chills when they listen to music, but those who do associate them with feeling intense pleasure brought on by the music. And chills have the benefit of being accompanied by typical changes in physiological arousal.

The music used in the study was self-selected by the study participants and Salimpoor played examples, ranging from house to classical. “Who gets pleasure from this?” she asked her audience. People raised their hands according to their preferences. To a casual observer, there seemed to be a high correlation between the style of music that gave pleasure and the age of the listener.

In the experiment, those who found a piece of music pleasurable had signs of emotional arousal as measured by the changes in the autonomic nervous system. In a further study, Salimpoor and her colleagues also found that music activates the dopamine reward circuit, which is involved in the brain’s response to other things that give us pleasure, and is also implicated in addictive behaviour.

Composers, though they may not have needed the results to prove that music gives pleasure, were quick to look for practical applications. Several contacted Salimpoor to ask what kind of music gave people chills. Although the musical styles ranged greatly from person to person in the study, a few pieces of music, and a few composers, showed up more than once. And, said Salimpoor, at least once piece of music, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, appeared to transcend musical styles, showing up both in its original form, and in various remixes.

Seminar over, Salimpoor was peppered with questions, confirming, or at least supporting, the small-room hypothesis.

Further reading
The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 9:51 AM   1 Comments


Watching the detectives

This fall I became the writer-in-residence at the Montreal Neurological Institute. The position is new and something of an experiment. This blog is a record of that experiment.

The idea to spend some time observing neuroscientists at work started with a lecture given by Brenda Milner for the 75th anniversary of the MNI in 2009. Milner presented an overview of her research of the now famous patient HM. I was fascinated both by the story of HM and Milner’s discoveries about memory, and by Milner herself. At 92, she is still active in the world of research (she appears to have more energy than I usually do at less than half her age) and she’s a good storyteller. I was curious to know more about her.

I had the opportunity to interview Milner for the online news and features service of the Dana Foundation, but, as with many freelance assignments, I felt that I had only touched the surface (through no fault of the Dana Foundation, I should add.) Many of the science articles I write follow a formula (Martin Robbins hit all too close to the mark in The Guardian) and leave little room for what physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein calls “the human side of science.” Who are the people who spend their lives working at science? We hear about writers, artists, actors, and others engaged in creative pursuits, but little is written about scientists.

Wilder Penfield, who founded the MNI in 1934, once said, “The problem of neurology is to understand man himself.” (This quote is etched into the façade of the building that houses the MNI.) It seems an interesting problem, therefore, to try and understand the neurologist.

I am not receiving any funding from the MNI for this residency. I work occasionally as a freelance writer for the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University (which is affiliated with the MNI), but the work is completely unrelated to this project.

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 5:17 PM   0 Comments

About me

Maria Schamis Turner is a Montreal-based writer and editor who is attempting to reconcile her divergent interests in science and literature. She has been writing about topics in neuroscience since 2008 and is currently the writer-in-residence at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

She is also the editor of the online literary magazine carte blanche. She can be reached at turnmaria [at] gmail [dot] com.

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 1:34 PM   3 Comments