Music has a way of altering your mood. When you are down, listening to music can really brighten your day. But have you ever stop to think how that happens? Specifically, what happens neurologically that triggers an emotional response to music?
I recently attended an event at the New York Academy of Sciences that addressed this question. This event, which is the last part of the Science of the Five Senses series, featured Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University and director of the laboratory of musical perception, cognition and expertise and Rosanne Cash, grammy-winning singer and songwriter (and daughter of Johnny Cash).
In order to determine how music elicits an emotional response, Levitin’s group performed a rather straightforward experiment. Subjects were exposed to 23-second bits of classical music (in tact for experimental subjects and scrambled for control subjects) while being scanned in an fMRI. They found that listening to music activated areas of the brain that are considered to be the pleasure center, specifically the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, which are involved in reward processing. Music also modulated the hypothalamus and insula, which are involved in regulating physiological responses to both rewarding and emotional stimuli. So it seems there is a neurological basis for the mood-altering effects of music.
Levitin mentioned that the regions of the brain that are stimulated by listening to music (i.e. the pleasure center) are also activated in response to other pleasurable stimuli, such as an orgasm. The pleasure center is also stimulated when an addict gets a fix. As Rosanne Cash aptly put it, “maybe there is something to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” So the next time you put on your favorite tune to lighten the mood, be sure to remember why it’s so enjoyable. It’s not so surprising you can become addicted to music.