The Neurobiology of Music-Induced Pleasure

Neuroscientists have pinpointed neural correlates associated with enjoying music

Posted Jan 08, 2017

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Functional connectivity between the nucleus accumbens (in red) and the right auditory cortex is associated with experiencing music-induced pleasure.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A pioneering new study by an international team of neuroscientists has identified a specific functional connectivity network between brain regions that is directly associated with the degree of pleasure someone experiences while listening to music. The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Did you know that some people derive absolutely zero pleasure from listening to music? This neurological disorder is called “specific musical anhedonia” and affects approximately three-to-five percent of the population.

Anhedonia is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in acts which normally produce it." Experiencing a loss of pleasure or interest in previously rewarding and enjoyable activities—such as listening to music that you once loved—is often a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Individuals with anhedonia are referred to as “anhedonics.”

For the latest study on specific musical anhedonia, researchers at the University of Barcelona and the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and Hospital of McGill University used fMRI brain imaging to pinpoint the neural correlates associated with variations between individuals on a continuum of music-induced pleasure.

If a neuroscientist asked you to rate how much pleasure you derive from listening to music on a scale of one to three, how would you respond?

For the new study on the neurobiology of music-induced pleasure, the researchers asked 45 people to fill out a detailed questionnaire about how much pleasure they derive from music. Based on each individual response, they divided study participants into three groups of 15 based on a high, medium, or low sensitivity to music.

Then, the neuroscientists scanned each person’s brain in an fMRI looking for clues to help pinpoint the neural correlates associated with making a musical experience more rewarding for some people than others. As test subjects listened to snippets of music inside an fMRI machine, each person provided real-time pleasure ratings. (Out of curiosity, if you were in an fMRI, what song would make your brain light up with delight? I'll share my two all-time favorite uplifting anthems later in this post.)

After analyzing the fMRI data in comparison to music-induced pleasure ratings, the neuroscientists found that people with specific musical anhedonia displayed a reduction in the activity of their nucleus accumbens (NAcc) while listening to music. The NAcc is a subcortical part of the brain’s reward system. Listening to music did not activate the NAcc pleasure-reward circuitry in the brain for people with anhedonia but did for other people who were sensitive to music enjoyment.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Sagittal view of the nucleus accumbens (in red).  
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The neuroscientists later discovered that it wasn’t just the level of activity in the NAcc that was responsible for driving music-induced pleasure or the lack thereof.

Intriguingly, when people with specific musical anhedonia were given other types of reward through a different pleasurable stimulus such as winning money, their nucleus accumbens lit up and showed activity in the fMRI. This caused researchers to conclude that there are multiple neural pathways to reward-based functional connectivity between cortical and subcortical regions in response to different stimuli.

More specifically, the amount of pleasure someone experienced while listening to music could be directly measured by an increase or decrease of the functional connectivity between cortical brain regions that process sounds (the right auditory cortex) with subcortical brain regions related to reward (the ventral striatum including the NAcc).

Individuals with a high sensitivity to music showed enhanced connectivity between the right auditory cortex and the nucleus accumbens, while anhedonics showed less functional connectivity between these brain regions. From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers believe this discovery will help experts in the field better understand how (and why) music acquired a reward value in the brain.

In a statement to McGill, Robert Zatorre, an MNI neuroscientist and one of the paper's co-authors, said,

"These findings not only help us to understand individual variability in the way the reward system functions, but also can be applied to the development of therapies for treatment of reward-related disorders, including apathy, depression, and addiction."

“Let Love Shine. And We Will Find. A Way to Come Together. We Can Make Things Better”

While reading about the new McGill study on specific musical anhedonia this morning, I had an Aha! moment when I realized, for the first time, the specific neurobiological underpinnings of the ecstatic pleasure I generally experience while listening to music. Now, I can also visualize the brain mechanics that explain why I have personally suffered from anhedonia—as marked by a loss of interest in music—whenever I'm experiencing the "blackness within the blackness" of a Major Depressive Episode (MDE).

I’ve had two major depressive episodes in my life. The first was in 1983. At the time, I was sixteen going on seventeen and trapped at a stodgy boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut  I was coming to grips with being gay, while simultaneously being ostracized and bullied by my peers and members of the administration. I've never felt so alone and pushed to the brink of suicide in my life. 

My second depressive episode was in 1989. I was living in the West Village of Manhattan and the AIDS epidemic was decimating my community. So many of my friends were sick and dying. Nothing in my life—including music—brought me a morsel of joy. I felt tremendous guilt that I was healthy and alive. I didn't want to be a survivor in a world without my comrades or mentors and was losing my will to live. 

 ktsdesign/Shutterstock
Source: ktsdesign/Shutterstock

After reading this new study about the role of functional connectivity between the nucleus accumbens and the right auditory cortex, I had an epiphany about the power of music to reboot my brain. During both of these isolated major depressive episodes (while suffering from anhedonia) having a good friend drag me to see Madonna perform live on stage caused a switch to go off in my brain that woke up specific synapses and got them firing in synchronicity again.

The live experience of seeing and hearing Madonna seems to have increased the functional connectivity of my brain in a way that made it possible for me to experience joy again. Maybe hearing live music tapped into my evolutionary biology and the reward circuitry of my NAcc and right auditory cortex somehow? 

For example, in 1983, my best friend dragged me to see Madonna perform live at a small gay nightclub in Boston before she was famous. Even though it was a rainy Sunday night, my friend coaxed me out of the house and down to "The Metro" on Landsdowne Street. This experience changed the trajectory of my life.

The next morning, I rushed to the Strawberries record store in Kenmore Square and bought Madonna's first album. Then, I scurried back to my house in Chestnut Hill as fast as I could to make a mixed tape with the First Madonna album on Side A, Greetings from Asbury Park by Bruce Springsteen on Side B, and the 12” remix of "Flashdance...What a Feeling" on any blank space left on either side of the cassette.Blasting this music on my Walkman that afternoon in my bedroom on the top floor of 2496 Beacon Street filled me with such intense joie de vivre...I thought I was going to explode. So, I headed out for my first jog ever around the Chestnut Hill reservoir to get some of this ecstatic energy out of my system. (For the record, I will always credit the triad of Madonna’s first album, the Walkman being invented, and running with music blasting at top volume in my headphones as a life-saving elixir for me when I was seventeen.)

But, in 1989 I fell into another major depressive episode as I mentioned above. At the time, I was involved in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) which was empowering, but I was feeling extremely hopeless and depressed nonetheless.

During this MDE one of my best friends got tickets to go see Madonna and dragged me from Manhattan to a New Jersey arena to see her perform an emotional benefit concert for amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) as part of her Blond Ambition Tour. Madonna's good friend Keith Haring and other people close to her had recently died of AIDS. Clearly, Madonna was suffering the pain of this epidemic on a deep, and very personal level. But she was doing her best to improve the situation and make the world a better place. As a role model, Madonna's prosocial and philanthropic commitments inspired me to follow in her footsteps and to stop wallowing in self-pity.

Despite how paralyzed I had been feeling due to my clinical depression at the time, seeing Madonna perform “Like a Prayer” live rewired some connectivity in my brain and made it possible for me to feel some hope and joy. This song inspired me to start running again the next day. Just like the song "Holiday" had done for me in the early-1980s. (This is anecdotal evidence. Always reach out and seek professional help if you are feeling clinically depressed or in suicidal crisis. Music is not a panacea, obviously.

That being said, my friend David who used to own RebelRebel records on Bleecker St. (before he was forced to close due to rent increases) was able to get some bootleg copies of the Blond Ambition tour on CD in 1990. So, I was able to listen to the entire concert and the live version of "Like a Prayer" again and again on my Walkman while training for ultra-endurance athletic events throughout the 1990s and beyond. 

To this day, whenever I’m feeling lackluster or uninspired on the treadmill, I’ll pull up these videos of Madonna performing “Holiday” or “Like a Prayer” and watch them on my smartphone while I'm running. These videos will always be a form of motivational rocket fuel for me. The ecstasy that oozes from every pore of Madonna’s body while she’s dancing and singing these songs is so contagious. It never fails to make me feel better—that is, if I'm not suffering a bout of anhedonia. I've included these YouTube videos with the hope that watching either of these clips might kickstart the functional connectivity between your nucleus accumbens and right auditory cortex. That said, everyone has such different taste in music. Surely these songs will leave many of you totally uninspired regardless of how much pleasure other music gives you.

Therefore, if you are feeling depressed or suffering from a mild case of anhedonia—and there are songs from your past that remind you of a time when music filled you with pure joy—I'd recommend making a playlist of songs you once really loved. Maybe unearthing songs from your past that you've forgotten about might reactivate the functional connectivity of the neural correlates associated with enjoying music and other things in life?

To be clear, this is speculative advice based on personal anecdotal experience. But I believe it's worth a try. As Bob Marley once sang, "One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain." 

References

Noelia Martínez-Molina, Ernest Mas-Herrero, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, Robert J. Zatorre, Josep Marco-Pallarés. Neural correlates of specific musical anhedonia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 113 (46): E7337 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611211113