Listening to music causes the brain to release the same chemical that gives pleasure when eating or having sex, according to a new study.
The brain substance is involved both in anticipating a particularly thrilling musical moment and in feeling the rush from it, researchers found.
Previous work had already suggested a role for dopamine, a substance brain cells release to communicate with each other. But the new work, which scanned people’s brains as they listened to music, showed it happening directly.
While dopamine normally helps us to feel the pleasure of eating or having sex, it also helps to produce euphoria from illegal drugs. It is active in particular circuits of the brain.
Writing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the study’s authors Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal said the tie to dopamine helped to explain why music is so widely popular across cultures.
The researchers described brain-scanning experiments with eight volunteers who were chosen because they reliably felt chills from particular moments in some favourite pieces of music. PET scans showed that the participants’ brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favourite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces.
Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened. Dopamine surged in one part of the striatum during the 15 seconds leading up to a thrilling moment, and a different part when that musical highlight finally arrived.
Mr Zatorre said the area linked to anticipation connects with parts of the brain involved with making predictions and responding to the environment, while the area reacting to the peak moment itself is linked to the brain’s limbic system, which is involved in emotion.
The study volunteers chose a wide range of music – from classical and jazz to punk, tango and even bagpipes. The most popular were Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
But music is not the only cultural experience that has been proved to affect the brain’s reward circuitry. Other researchers recently showed a link when people studied artwork.