Rhonda Freeman Ph.D.



Music and the Brain's Reward and Bonding Systems

Two reasons Prince was truly a part of us.

Posted Apr 28, 2016

Northfoto / Shutterstock.com
Source: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

On April 21, we lost a musical genius and the shock of his death reverberated around the world. Suddenly, Prince was gone. For many fans, the impact was akin to the loss of a family member. Through his music they were able to feel that he got them, even if they had never met.

Why did Prince's fans feel such a strong connection to him? Why did he feel like family? It is likely a reflection of three factors—his music, his persona, and our brain.

Many Prince fans will attest that one cannot separate the man from the music. To listen to his arrangements was to develop a relationship with The Artist. Both were deeply intertwined. The lyrics, instruments, vocals, dancing and standing up for what he believed in, all connected us to him. Given that Prince was honest and raw in his music, his fans felt they were allowed the opportunity to know and feel him. We respected the great lengths he went to protect his work from copyright infringement and to gain ownership of his catalog. We were in awe at his lack of accommodation to any standard other than his own. His creations were simultaneously playful, unique, inspiring, naughty and deep.

The Brain

We are our brain—it is responsible for every emotion, feeling, and thought we have. It is our talent, our personality, it's who we are. In addition to its genetic foundation, the brain is further shaped by our life experiences. For all that we do and feel there are neurological mechanisms taking place that create those responses. Although it feels like Prince touched our hearts, in actuality he touched our brains.

If we look at the neurobiology behind our response to Prince, his music, and his death, it seems that there are two primary brain systems responsible: The Reward System (which encompasses both pleasure and pain) and the Bonding System, which uses many of the same neuropathways).

1. The Reward System

Listening to music can have an immediate and profound impact on our emotions. Music has the power to create an experience of pleasure by activating regions of the brain associated with the neurochemistry of our reward circuitry. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, these include dopamine, as well as serotonin, "and the brain's own endogenous opiods" (Levitin, 2013, p. 19). 

This process starts in the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens—regions of the brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine receptors in the area of the nucleus accumbens are part of the brain's reward system. Dopamine motivates us toward pleasure. It is associated with the anticipation of something the brain has identified as valuable, rewarding, and special to us. That something can be anything, including a person or a drug.

But dopamine does not act alone. It works in conjunction with endogenous opioids, which our brain generates, that give us the sensation of "liking" something (Lekness and Tracey, 2008). Endogenous opioids are the source of that feel-good sensation we experience in response to something we enjoy. The brain releases endogenous opioids under conditions of both pleasure and pain.

One cannot have a discussion regarding our neurobiological response to Prince and not mention his visual appeal. A study by Cloutier, Heatherton, Whalen, and Kelley (2008) found that the brain perceives attractive people as rewarding. Viewing a beautiful person sparks the release of neurochemistry associated with the reward system. It is a visual treat for the brain. Most of Prince's fans would agree that he was visually appealing.

But it does not end at the star's music and appearance igniting our pleasure and pain center. For fans, it was deeper than that. Many felt a bond with him and his death created a sense of loss and sorrow. Music has an impact upon many structures within the brain beyond the reward system. There is also a response within areas such as the amygdala, hippocampus, insula, and hypothalamus (Levitin, 2013). These regions are vital to emotional responsivity and memory

When fans felt like Prince touched them deeply, it was because, neurobiologically, he did. Deep within our brain is an area called the amygdala. This region is associated with the processing of emotional information. Music can have a tremendous impact on the amygdala. The area has interconnections with many portions of the brain, particularly those associated with memory. 

Our amygdala "remembers" pleasurable experiences (as well as sad, stressful, or negative ones) and connects the emotion with an event or stimulus forever. As a result, we instantly embark on an emotional journey of our history when a favorite songs plays. It would not be unusual to hear the opening guitar of "Purple Rain" and for it to suddenly emotionally transport us back to middle school. 

2. The Bonding System

The primary neurochemical we think of concerning bonding and social affiliation is oxytocin. The bonding system reflects neurochemistry that follows various pathways, sharing some of the same brain areas and circuitry as the reward system. 

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (when within the brain) and hormone (in other areas). It is associated with social affiliation and bonding with other people or things. In plain language, oxytocin contributes to the sensation when we say that we "vibe" with someone; we enjoy their energy or have a connection. Oxytocin increases feelings of social affiliation and trust with a particular individual, depending upon the social context. Aside from connecting to a performer through their persona, simply listening to music has the power to raise oxytocin levels (Chanda and Levitin, 2013). 

It is also through oxytocin that we become accustomed or dependent upon certain stimuli being present through repeated exposure. The combination of the release of oxytocin and dopamine are what underlies a social bond (Earp, Wudarczyk, Sandberg, & Savulescu, 2013).

This combination of neurochemistry connected many to Prince. There was a genuine bond. Due to neuroadaptation, people who are meaningful in our lives become a part of us (or to our brain).  We experience it as a loss of a part of ourselves when they are gone, eiher because of death or a breakup. The breaking of a social bond, regardless of how, is responsible for the sensation that a piece of us is missing when we lose someone. Even if we have not seen or heard from the person in years, when we learn of their death, there will usually still be pain or discomfort in our reaction.

Prince was not at the forefront of many fans' thoughts before his death. However, the bond with him was still there—neurobiologically, he was still a part of us. That is not broken simply because he has no current Top 40 hit. A deep bond is by definition not superficial; it is not based on "What have you done for me lately?" We value it for what has already been done. 

As a result, upon hearing of Prince's death, we felt hurt and reacted by missing him and wanting to hear his music again—to feel him again. Because from the standpoint of our brain, he was always there through the emotions he generated years ago. And when that bond is truly broken—such as through death—we can feel it at our core. Naturally, there will be grief for those who established this kind of connection to Prince.

The following is a video from CNN of Larry King's interview with Prince.

My Favorite Memory: In 2007, Prince performed at the Super Bowl, the year that I was a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. It was an amazing experience to have him here in our house. There was a downpour like only Miami can give. And Prince got on that stage, with his hair wrapped, and gave a PERFORMANCE that blew everyone away! His music will forever touch me, especially songs like "Adore," "I Would Die 4 You" and "Purple Rain." I will never forget him and will take a page from his book and be courageous and never mute or sacrifice myself to accommodate others.

Prince's fans did not stand a chance but to fall in love with him. For those who knew him and held a special place in his life, such as his family and friends, my heart goes out to them for their loss.

(Thank you Dr. Daniel Levitin for the quote permission.)

Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Clinical Neuropsychologist

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