Your favorite music can send your brain into a pleasure overload

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We all know the moment when we are in the car, at a concert or even sitting on our sofa and one of our favorite songs is being played. It’s the one that has that really good chord in it that floods your system with pleasant emotions, happy memories, makes your hair stand on the edge, and even sends a chill or “chill” down your back. About half of people get chills when listening to music. Neuroscientists based in France have now used the EEG to link chills to multiple brain regions involved in activating reward and pleasure systems. The results will be published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Thibault Chabin and colleagues from the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besançon scanned the brains of 18 French participants who regularly experience chills when they hear their favorite pieces of music. In a questionnaire, they were asked to indicate when they had the chills and to rate their enjoyment of them.

“The participants in our study were able to pinpoint ‘chill-producing’ moments in the songs, but most of the musical chills occurred in many parts of the excerpts and not just in the predicted moments,” says Chabin.

When participants experienced chills, Chabin saw specific electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional processing), the additional motor area (a region of the middle brain involved in controlling movement), and the right Temporal lobe (a region on the right side of the brain involved in auditory processing and musical appreciation). These regions work together to process music, trigger the brain’s reward systems, and release dopamine – a “feel good” hormone and neurotransmitter. Combined with the pleasant anticipation of your favorite part of the song, this creates the sizzling coldness you experience – a physiological response that indicates greater cortical connectivity.

“The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with the EEG opens up opportunities for studies in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups,” comments Chabin. “This is a good perspective for musical emotion research.”

The EEG is a non-invasive, high-precision technique that uses sensors on the surface of the scalp to look for electrical currents caused by brain activity. In musical chills, low-frequency electrical signals called “theta activity” – a type of activity associated with successful memory performance associated with high rewards and musical appreciation – take place in the regions of the brain involved in musical processing , either to or from.

“In contrast to difficult imaging procedures such as PET scans or fMRI, the classic EEG can be transported outside of the laboratory in naturalistic scenarios,” says Chabin. “What is most fascinating is that music does not seem to have any biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and the reward system in processing musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music.”

This ancestral function can lie in the time we spend waiting for the “chill-inducing” part of the music. While we wait, our brains are busy predicting the future and releasing dopamine. From an evolutionary point of view, it is vital to be able to predict what will happen next.

Why should we keep studying chills?

“We want to measure how cerebral and physiological activities of several participants are linked in natural, social musical environments,” says Chabin. “Musical enjoyment is a very interesting phenomenon that deserves further investigation to understand why music is worthwhile and to find out why music is essential to human life.”

How the study was conducted:

The study was carried out on 18 healthy participants – 11 women and 7 men. The participants were recruited via posters on campus and in the university hospital. They had an average age of 40, were sensitive to musical rewards, and experienced chills frequently. They had a range of musical skills.

A high-density EEG scan was performed while participants listened to 90-s clips of their most entertaining pieces of music for 15 minutes. While listening, participants were told to rate their subjectively perceived pleasure and indicate when they felt “chills”. A total of 305 chills were reported, each lasting an average of 8.75 s. These results implied increased brain activity in regions previously associated with musical enjoyment in PET and fMRI studies.

The brain’s favorite music

More information:
Frontiers of Neuroscience (2020). DOI: 10.3389 / fnins.2020.565815, www.frontiersin.org/articles/1… ins.2020.565815 / full

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