Scientists say that our brain reacts to great music similar to way it reacts to sex.
In both of these situations, the experience of pleasure that we have is mediated by the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine. This finding is based on the results of experiments done by analyst Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Music produces an intellectual reward, because the listener has to follow the sequence of notes to appreciate it. For the study, the participants were asked to choose instrumental pieces of music that gave them goosebumps. Lyrics were banned, so the associations the participants might have to the words in the music didn’t confound the final results.
Songs couldn’t have specific memories attached either.
While listening to their chosen music, Salimpoor’s team measured things like heart rate and increases in respiration and sweating. During these listening sessions, a 6-9% relative increase in their dopamine levels was detected in participates when compared to a control condition in which participants had listened to each other’s music selections.
How does this dopamine increase compare to other activities?
In prior studies with cocaine, Salimpoor reported that relative dopamine increases in the brain had been above 22%. While eating a pleasurable meal, a relative increase of 6% was experienced by participants. So, in other words, listening to your favorite song is a lot like eating a cheese and Portobello-stuffed burger. This finding reminds me of a blog post written by science journalist Jonah Lehrer. He made a great argument about why making dinner is a good idea. Ever since reading his piece, I’ve wondered if it applied to music.
These days, more people are listening to more music now than ever before. Why?
Well, as we’ve learned from the study above, it’s in part, because we find the experience pleasurable. We’re dopamine fiends. Also, due to devices like the iPod, it’s now possible to listen to our music everywhere – at all times. Technology has made it possible to carry our entire music collection with us and we like to indulge ourselves with their contents.
Like a delicious meal, music rewards us. Like music, food is easier to access too.
Studies have found that how much the food we consume is correlated with the effort we exert to get it. In one experiment, Lehrer writes, “Mice were trained to push levers to get one of two rewards. If they pressed lever A, they got a delicious drop of sugar water. If they pressed lever B, they got a different tasting drop of sugar water.” Overtime, the scientists started to mess with the mice by gradually increasing the amount of effort required to get one of the sweet water drops. The mice only had to press the lever one time to get the sugar water at the start of the study. But, by the end, they had to press the lever 15 times.
“Here’s where things get interesting: When the test was over and the mice were allowed to relax in their home cage, they showed an overwhelming preference for whichever reward they’d worked harder to obtain,” Lehrer says. “More lever presses led to tastier water.” In the paper, the scientists conclude that the reason why such an effect might exist is because back when calories were scarce, humans had to work hard to obtain less than desirable food. This means that in times when food was hard to come by and people had to increase their foraging efforts in order to get it, the added effort would cause them to enjoy their findings more. Dinner may have been disgusting, but they had to like it or die.
Similarly, due to the added effort, fans may prefer vinyl records to MP3s.
Next, Lehrer brings up a paper by economists David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro called “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?”.
“They argue that the rise in the weight of the average American in recent decades has been largely caused by a technological shift in food production, which allows us to cook calories with ever increasing ease,” Lehrer writes. “Why do the microwave and frozen dinner inexorably lead to obesity? According to the economists, the cheapness of calories (both in terms of price and time) has led us to dramatically boost consumption. Food stops being something we make and create — it doesn’t require very many lever presses, so to speak — and becomes something we simply ingest. Eating just gets easier.”
And guess what? We get fatter. Unhealthy food is often the easiest to prepare.
“But maybe we’re not just consuming more calories because they’re available at such a low cost. Maybe we’re also consuming more calories because each calorie gives us less pleasure,” Lehrer adds. “The lesson of those lever-pressing mice, after all, is that when we don’t work for our food — when it only requires a single press, or a few whirls of the microwave — it tastes much less delicious.” This hypothesis of his brings us to one last study. In it, scientists gave participants sips of a milkshake inside an fMRI machine.
What they were interested in is the activation of the striatum. This is an area in the brain that’s rich in dopamine neurons and involved in the processing of hedonic rewards.
What they found is that obese people tended to have reduced activation in the striatum after sipping the milkshake, which led them to consume more of it. “In other words, they kept on consuming the milkshake in a manic search for satisfaction,” Lehrer concludes.
These findings contradict the cultural stereotype of obesity. We assume that overweight people are gluttons – that they’re unable to resist temptation. However, the opposite is true. They overeat because they don’t enjoy their food enough. They keep consuming the milkshake because it isn’t satisfying. Maybe this is also why we listen to music constantly.
We find it less pleasurable.
Like food, we serve up ever-larger portion sizes of music. It greets us in the morning as our phone alarm. We might even sing to it in the shower. On the way to work, our iPod is shuffling away. Once inside the office, we turn on Pandora and go about our work day.
Often, we don’t create the playlists and listening sessions ourselves. iTunes Genius and Pandora generate them for us. Listening requires no effort. We just press play. It’s there.
We hear music all day, but never listen to it. We passively hear it in the background. In order to get the same baseline of pleasure from our music, we need to consume more of it. We’re like the participants in the milkshake study, searching for further satisfaction.
And we never find it.
Soon enough, the pieces of music that used to give us goosebumps, leave us cold. The first time we heard the song, it stirred something deep inside of us. Then we played it again and again until it burned us out. Listening to the song no longer rewards us.
Our brain has memorized the patterns. It knows that the bridge is near. And the more we train it to anticipate the part we like, the less dopamine gets displaced as a result.
What once resembled a cheese and Portobello-stuffed burger is now a Banquet Chicken Pot Pie. Frantically, we peak into our library looking for the musical equivalent of Cheetos.
We’re satisfied. For now. But Chester Cheetah knows we’ll be back for more soon.