Ever had goosebumps or felt euphoric chills when listening to a piece of music? If so, your brain is reacting to the music in the same way as it would to some delicious food or a psychoactive drug such as cocaine, according to scientists.
The experience of pleasure is mediated in all these situations by the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine, according to results of experiments carried out by a team led by Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which are published today in Nature Neuroscience.
Music seems to tap into the circuitry in the brain that has evolved to drive human motivation – any time we do something our brains want us to do again, dopamine is released into these circuits. “Now we’re showing that this ancient reward system that’s involved in biologically adaptive behaviours is being tapped into by a cognitive reward,” said Salimpoor.
She said music provided an intellectual reward, because the listener has to follow the 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.”
I’m not surprised at all, because I’m sure my music listening habits would make some people wonder about the possibility of addiction. But it is interesting what they note about intellectual pleasures being able to tap into a system designed to encourage more prosaic pursuits like eating and sex. I was just telling Shanna the other day that I have to be careful when I engage in writing or thinking about stimulating topics because they can have a physically energizing effect on me as potent as a cappuccino. Perhaps I’m using music and thoughts to accomplish something like what Steven Pinker talked about:

Now, if the intellectual faculties could identify the pleasure-giving patterns, purify them, and concentrate them, the brain could stimulate itself without the messiness of electrodes or drugs. It could give itself intense artificial doses of the sights and sounds and smells that ordinarily are given off by healthful environments.

Speaking of whom, I see I wasn’t the only one to see this story and recall his characterization of music as “auditory cheesecake”.