There’s something about music that engages the brain, often eliciting a strong emotion simply using the ears. While it might just be an abstract pattern of pitches and rhythms, music somehow has significant biological and therapeutic implications. A recent study co-authored by McGill researchers explains the phenomenon, providing novel evidence that the motivational power of music depends upon the amount of dopamine in the brain.
“This paper is the first evidence showing that the way that music engages our reward system is really much like other things that are much more concrete and important for our survival,” Benjamin Gold, a Ph.D. candidate for McGill’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience, said.
The researchers based their investigation on the known connection between music and dopamine release; what remained unknown was how a change in dopamine levels could then play a role in motivating a subject.
“Is dopamine causing the pleasure we may experience from music, or is it responding as a consequence of pleasure and actually enhancing motivational aspects of behaviour?” Ernest Mas-Herrero, a postdoctoral fellow and the study’s primary author, said.
After conducting three separate trials on 27 healthy volunteers, the study found that participants who received levodopa, a drug that the brain converts into dopamine, experienced an increase in motivation compared to those who received a placebo. Conversely, when the same volunteers listened to music after receiving a dose of risperidone, a molecule that blocks dopamine receptors, their motivation decreased.
“When we compare the [levodopa and risperidone treatment groups], we see participant reports of pleasure differing,” Mas-Herrero said, “More chills and pleasure follow levodopa than risperidone. People are also more likely to spend money, so they are more motivated to buy […] music following levodopa than risperidone.”
According to Mas-Herrero, music can serve as a model to understand emotions and their complexity.
“Dopaminergic circuits can be used to understand disorders and conditions characterized by a dysfunction of this pathway, such as addiction or depression,” Mas-Herrero said.
The research also opens the door to understanding how music acts as a therapeutic treatment for neurological disorders. Those who have neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s could potentially be treated using musical therapy in ways that pharmacological alternatives cannot. Sufferers of depression or anxiety could also see some increases in motivation as a result of this musically-induced mechanism.
“Understanding the neurochemistry of music may help us understand to what extent music can be used as a treatment for motivational [and neurodegenerative] disorders,” Mas-Herrero said.
This paper provides hope that the substantial link between music, motivation, and mental pleasure can be exploited to boost motivational circuits.
“Music is so powerful to us, so emotional, and, therefore, able to shine through our memories when other memories are deteriorating like in Alzheimer’s,” Gold said. “[It can also] provide cues that we can associate [with] our movements like in Parkinson’s, or to be a substrate for connection like in autism.”
Though there is still be plenty left to discover, such as why something as abstract as music can play such a large role in processing information, this paper acts as the first step toward understanding music’s therapeutic effects.
“We still have a lot to learn about how to use music to target and treat neurological disorders, but it might be possible,” Gold said. “There’s still a lot to uncover. This paper is more of a proof of concept.”