Music Appreciation 101: Turns Out It’s About Wiring


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WC was told in 8th grade that many dogs vomit more melodiously than WC sings.1 It’s true, too. Yet WC is an immense fan of music,2 as the seemingly unending series of concert reviews posted here must show.

It turns out there are entirely different neurological mechanisms involved.

In a recent study, they hooked up music lovers and those indifferent to music to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and measured blood flow in various centers of the brain when they played them some tunes. In music lovers, the auditory cortex gets stimulated, as you’d expect, and then the reward/pleasure centers of the brain get stimulated. There’s a connection. In those indifferent to music, there’s apparently no connection and the reward/pleasure  centers show no activity.

These results beg the question of causation. The study doesn’t sort out cause and effect. We don’t know if music lovers like music because their pleasure centers get lit up, or vice versa. But it does speak to how an outside stimulus can trigger a reward in the form of a pleasure response. When WC hears k.d. lang sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” it’s thrilling, even though WC has probably heard it a hundred or more times.

WC wonders if this effect might explain other non-chemical addictions. A couple of WC’s buddies had their lives destroyed by an addiction to gambling, for example.3 Compulsive shopping might be another example.

What the study doesn’t show is why and how that connection to the pleasure center gets made. Is it learned? Genetic? Or whether the intensity of the connection varies, and if so, why.

WC is uncertain about the whole fMRI research area, and isn’t completely persuaded that you can measure brain activity by blood flow, or that complex responses like pleasure are limited to one specific area of the brain. The research in this area seems to WC’s amateur eye to be unsettled, at best.

But interesting. Hmm. Wonder if that another kind of odd brain wiring?

 


  1. WC apologizes to digestively challenged dogs everywhere. Dogs must like the sound they make heaving or they wouldn’t do it so often. 
  2. Provided we define “music” as excluding opera, rap and the more adenoidal extremes of country music and bluegrass. 
  3. WC has never really enjoyed gambling. Perhaps WC has been doing it wrong. But this would explain why it is more fun to drive to Las Vegas than it is to drive from Las Vegas. 
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