25-31 Jan 2011
Rhythm and Reward

Whenever you get goosebumps or a euphoric feeling while listening to a piece of music, your brain is responding the same way as it would to delicious food or psychoactive drugs like cocaine, according to a study published in Nature Neuroscience. This experience of pleasure is a result of the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine, according to the team of researchers led by Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University.

Dopamine is released whenever we do something the brain wants repeated. Salimpoor says music provides an intellectual reward because the listener has to follow a sequence of notes to appreciate it. ‘A single tone won’t be pleasurable in isolation. However, a series of single tones arranged in time can become some of the most pleasurable experiences that humans have ever reported. That’s amazing because it suggests that somehow our cerebral cortex is following these tones over time and there must be a component of build-up, anticipation, expectation.’

In the experiment, participants chose instrumental pieces of music that gave them goosebumps but had no memories attached. Salimpoor’s team noticed a 6-9 per cent increase in their dopamine levels, compared to the control group.