Sex, drugs & rock n’ roll. Ever wondered why those three things go together in this famous expression?
Neuroaesthetics is the relatively recent study of questions such as “Why do we like the things we like?” and “Why do some people find one thing pleasing while others find it appalling?” It has focused on issues such as creativity, visual and motor processing in visual artists and the varying factors involved in creative domains.
Many of these studies have examined music and the neural activity that occurs when we listen to and evaluate what we hear.
Salimpoor and Zatorre (2013) reviewed a number of research studies examining the effects of music on brain activity; in particular activity that relates to the feeling of pleasure. The evidence was clear: not only does music boost our sense of pleasure but there is also a dopamine activity in anticipation to the music that “touches us.”
But that’s where the tricky part lies: this effect is noteworthy only when it is music that we choose, otherwise it does not apply. When the experimenter chose music he or she found to be emotion-inducing, the participants did not experience the desired feeling or the “chills” effect.
Then, the question remains: Why do people get emotional with some songs but not with others? The answer is not clear.
Cultural background, previously reinforced neural activity, subjective interpretations, exposure to certain sequences of sound and many more variables come into play. The notion of subjectivity in evaluating art is something that still requires a lot of exploration.
However, despite the uncertainty regarding why the pleasurable sensation of music is not an absolute and objective process, there is an important point we ought to highlight. The clear message that we can hold onto is that music arouses rewarding emotions, similar to those involved in addictive behaviors that get reinforced over time.
This information, though intuitive to some degree, may be more helpful when discussing the topic of coping skills for symptoms of depression, “emotional numbness” and recovery from chemical dependency.
One of the goals in developing a treatment plan for depressive disorders and substance abuse is to come up with a set of coping skills that can be easily accessed when feeling “as if nothing brings feelings of joy.” Chemically dependent individuals often report that the feeling of numbness and anhedonia can be quickly escaped by using drugs or other sources of immediate gratification.
Of course, the problem is that along with the sense of pleasure comes other unwanted consequences. This is where the findings from these neuroaesthetic studies come into play: When contemplating ways to respond to a decreased sense of pleasure, knowledge about how music can make us feel good comes in handy. Turning to this risk-free way of experiencing pleasure can be incorporated in treatment methodologies for conditions associated with decreased sense of emotional rewards.
Having said that, we have to be careful not to imply that the strong neurological and physical reaction to substances and other addictive behaviors can be reduced and compared to the effect of listening to a David Bowie or Shakira song. However, knowing that music is a highly rewarding experience is a useful reminder when discussing ways to replace destructive habits, or when developing a set of tools that help manage feelings of depression.
Salimpoor, V.N.; Zatorre, R.J. (2013). Neural interactions that give rise to musical pleasure. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 62-75. doi:10.1037/a0031819