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Was Steven Pinker Right After All?

Music stimulates and develops our mental faculties.

The pleasure of listening to music

At the end of the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker infamously characterized music as "auditory cheesecake": a delightful dessert but, from an evolutionary perspective, no more than a by-product of language. But Pinker was probably right when he wrote: "I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of...our mental faculties." Or, to express his idea less graphically: music affects our brains at specific places, thereby stimulating the production of unique substances that have a pleasurable effect on our mood. However, rather than a by-product of evolution, music or more precisely musicality is likely to be a characteristic that survived natural selection in order to stimulate and develop our mental faculties (cf. Honing, 2013).

Pinker's idea may actually be a very fruitful hypothesis whose significance has wrongfully gone unacknowledged because of all the criticism it elicited. After all, the purely evolutionary explanations for the origins of music largely overlook the experience of music we all share: the pleasure we derive from it, not only from the acrobatics of making it but also from the act of listening to it.

In a recent study Canadian researchers were able to show precisely that: Music can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. They were able to show that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. And, more importantly, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself.

Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726

Honing, H. (paperback in press, 2013) Musical Cognition. A Science of Listening. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.