Music triggers the same pleasure-reward system in the brain as food, sex and illicit drugs, according to McGill University researchers who have been peering into minds of music lovers.
They’ve discovered the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released when people listen to their favourite music, be it rock, jazz or classical.
The finding by the team at McGill, reported yesterday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, helps explain why music is so pleasurable and popular.
It also hints at why music has been so valued and important throughout human history and across cultures, says neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, who leads the McGill team at the Montreal Neurological Institute.
“Music has such deep roots in the brain that it engages this biologically ancient system,” says Zatorre, explaining how dopamine generates the sensation of pleasure in the striatum, a primitive region deep in the brain.
It’s long been known dopamine is produced and generates pleasure when we eat or have sex, reinforcing activities that are key to survival. The Montreal study provides the first evidence that dopamine is also responsible for musical highs.
“For reasons that we don’t entirely understand, somehow music was able to kick in with the same system,” Zatorre says. “And that gives it power that it might not otherwise have.”
While music may not be key to survival, he says it has been “very” useful.
“Because it gives us pleasure, we can use it to our advantage to modulate our state of mind.”