Brain study brings us closer to understanding why music moves us
Everyone can relate to the experience of feeling a chill reverberate across their body upon listening to a favorite song. We know listening to music can provoke strong sensations of pleasure and prior imaging studies have illustrated deeply complex patterns of cerebral activity in the brain’s reward and pleasure regions are triggered by music .
A new study from a team of French neuroscientists is offering novel insights into how our brains generate those pleasurable musical chills. The research is the first to study this phenomenon using a new kind of high-density EEG system that allows electrical activity to be measured in more natural environments.
“These cerebral investigations remain limited to laboratory experiments with heavy neuroimaging techniques (fMRI, PET scan) whereas social neurosciences, and consequently the study of collective emotions, is moving toward natural/ecological paradigms,” write the researchers in the new study, elucidating the novelty of this new research compared to prior work. “The use of mobile wireless EEG could provide the possibility of studying cerebral activity during peak emotion of musical chills in ecological/natural conditions.”
The study recruited 18 subjects, with each participant selecting five extracts from songs they reported as inducing chills. An additional three "neutral" musical extracts were selected by the research team. The researchers then correlated the EEG activity with the self-reported real-time chills experienced by the participants.
When the subjects reported feeling a chill while listening to music, the researchers detected activity in three particular brain regions: the orbitofrontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the right temporal lobe. The researchers suggest this pattern of theta frequency activity illustrates the brain working to process the music and subsequently triggering the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter classically associated with positive emotions and feeling good.
The research validates prior more complex neuroimaging studies linking these same brain regions to the phenomenon of musical chill. Thibault Chabin, an author on the new study, suggests this new evidence showing EEG can effectively detect these signals allows for exciting future research into how music affects the brain in naturalistic group scenarios.
"The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with EEG brings opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups," adds Chabin. "This represents a good perspective for musical emotion research."
Chabin points out the new study offers more clear evidence that our brains seem hardwired to have reward systems triggered by music, which inevitably leads to the question – what is the evolutionary function for this mechanism?
"What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us,” says Chabin. “However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music."
Exactly what this “ancestral function” could be is still a mystery. Other behaviors that trigger similar reward pathways in the brain are more fundamentally related to activities that we clearly need to survive. But listening to music is certainly not the same as eating or mating.
Some have suggested music plays a vital role in bonding communities and triggering these reward pathways in response to music in group settings could help unify social groups.
Chabin suggests it is this very hypothesis that he hopes to explore in future studies. Now that HD-EEG has been validated as effectively measuring this brain activity in response to music, the next step is to track group responses in various naturalistic settings.
"We want to measure how cerebral and physiological activities of multiple participants are coupled in natural, social musical settings," says Chabin. "Musical pleasure is a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be investigated further, in order to understand why music is rewarding and unlock why music is essential in human lives."
The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
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Now the question becomes: can we quantify just what that "magic" is?