Brain's Reward System Responsible For Love, Or Hatred, Of Music
March 6, 2014

Brain’s Reward System Responsible For Love, Or Hatred, Of Music

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

While some of us obsess over music – collecting stacks of vinyl and vintage guitars – others could care less. According to a new study, the pleasure we get, or don’t get, from music is based on the innate reward system in our own brain.

In the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, a team of Spanish and Canadian researchers found that some people who feel pleasure in other ways simply can’t get it out of music. The study team called this newly described condition specific musical anhedonia – or the inability to derive pleasure specifically from music.

"The identification of these individuals could be very important to understanding the neural basis of music—that is, to understand how a set of notes [is] translated into emotions," said study author Josep Marco-Pallarés, a neuroscientist at the University of Barcelona.

The study began with a survey to gauge individual differences in the psychological reward derived from music. The survey found that some individuals who described a low sensitivity to music had a typical sensitivity to other types of reward. The researchers said several reasons are possible for these low music sensitivities. For example, some people may appear to dislike music simply because they have difficulty understanding it, a condition called amusia.

The study team chose to look at three groups of ten people, a group with high pleasure ratings in reaction to music, one with typical pleasure ratings in reaction to music, or one with low sensitivity to musical reward. Volunteers in the three groups were selected based on their overall sensitivity to other kinds of rewards and their capacity to understand music.

Participants took part in two different tests: a music task, involving rating the degree of pleasure they were experiencing while listening to pleasant music, and a monetary incentive task involving volunteers responding swiftly to a target stimulus in order to win or prevent losing real money. Both assignments have been demonstrated to engage reward-related neural circuits and generate a rush of dopamine. Meanwhile, the scientists recorded modifications of skin conductance response and heart rate – two physiologic indicators of emotion.

The researchers found that some otherwise healthy and non-depressed people do not take pleasure in music and display no autonomic reactions to its sound, even if they have normal musical perception capacities. These participants did react to monetary rewards, an indication that low sensitivity to music isn't associated with some global problem of the brain's reward network.

The study team said that their research might lead to a greater understanding of the brain’s reward system.

"The idea that people can be sensitive to one type of reward and not to another suggests that there might be different ways to access the reward system and that, for each person, some ways might be more effective than others," Marco-Pallarés said.

The survey used in the study is currently available online for anyone to take. The online quiz produces feedback that ranks sensitivity to music reward with respect to Music Seeking, Emotion Evocation, Mood Regulation, Sensori-motor, Social and Music Reward.