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TO THE PLEASURE CENTER
Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because
it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists
aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this
for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers
at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre,
came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.
on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music
they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became
more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward
responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated
with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll).
but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to
reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favourite
theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s
about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns
that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re
right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots
in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was
a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional
response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think
things through. And so, the theory goes, our response to sound
became a gut reaction.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON
The truth is we’re learning new things about music all
the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past
But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor
wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we
like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment
we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second
samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked
them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track.
And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The
result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active -- it’s
a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what
neuroscientists call ‘positive prediction errors’
-- they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if
a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern
recognition, they wanted more of it.
Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists
in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective
than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.
Unless their favourite song is by Metallica: And it helps even
the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center
in New York found that when parents turned their favourite songs
into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it
reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital
The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist
Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened
to the same piece of music -- in this case a little known symphony
-- –their brains reflected similar patterns of activity.
And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the
brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible
for attention, memory and movement.
You know you love “Gangnam Style. Yes, scientists are
even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them,
songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found
that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not
awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often,
it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want
to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how
to get rid of an earworm -- you need to engage in a task that
requires the auditory and verbal components of your working
memory -- say, reading a good book.
No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people
with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn
a second language, and now a new study suggests that people
who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese,
may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese
requires a person to master six different tones, each of which
can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians
as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent
higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play
Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published
in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training
before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development.
Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to
have stronger connections between the motor regions of their
Say what? So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all.
At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist
Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music
causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study
was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner
ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted
by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity
for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently