The spectrum of emotions we feel when listening to music, from delight to disgust, is a universal experience for listeners. Previous research in neuroscience has demonstrated that dopamine is at least correlated with the pleasure we derive from it, but whether or not it was causally-related remained unclear.
Now, the idea has been fleshed out by Canadian and international researchers for the first time, and their findings (published in PNAS) show it has a direct role.
‘Reward Molecule’ may be key to global passion for music
The neurotransmitter dopamine — also called the ‘Reward Molecule’ — is an important part of several brain functions including cognitive, behavioural, and emotional areas. Perhaps most famously, it is associated with pleasure and reward. Highs from activities such as sex, food, gambling, and drug addiction are all connected to dopamine release.
As such, the team wanted to know if the buzz we get from listening to music (or a fingers-in-the-ears response) is similarly driven by dopaminergic transmission or a lack thereof.
“In everyday life, humans regularly seek participation in highly complex and pleasurable experiences — such as music listening, singing, or playing — that do not seem to have any specific survival advantage,” says lead author Laura Ferreri, from the University of Barcelona.
“Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into a pleasant and rewarding experience is thus a challenging and fascinating question.”
To investigate, a double-blind test was conducted involving the manipulation of dopaminergic transmission in 27 participants. Across three 20-minute sessions separated by a week at minimum, the participants orally consumed a pill to influence dopamine synaptic ability.
In one session, participants were given levodopa, which increases dopamine availability. Conversely, risperidone, which acts as a dopamine antagonist, was provided at a separate session. Lactose was also thrown into the mix on one of the sessions as a placebo control, and used as a baseline against which the other two treatments were compared.
The music playlist was partially made up of self-selected songs, and the rest were selected by the research team.
For assessment, self-reported questionnaires were used along with skin sensors which act as highly accurate indicators of pleasure responses by measuring electrodermal activity. Participants were also asked if they would be willing to pay for specific songs as a determinant of the influence dopamine had on their motivation.
Sure enough, the team’s results showed that manipulating our pleasure and reward circuit via dopamine has an effect on how much we enjoy music.
Risperidone was found to significantly reduce a participant’s willingness to pay for the songs selected by the researchers or enjoy the experience of listening to familiar, self-selected songs.
Levodopa had the opposite effect. Participants not only reported a much more pleasurable listening experience overall, but they were also more willing to pay for the tunes the researchers selected for them.
Ferreri commented that this study “sheds new light on the role of the human dopaminergic system regarding abstract rewards.”
“This study shows for the first time a causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure and motivation,” adds Ferrari. “Enjoying a piece of music, deriving pleasure from it, wanting to listen to it again, being willing to spend money for it, strongly depend on the dopamine released in our synapses.”