Music to the ears: a phrase that delineates pleasure, the conjuring of deep and indescribable emotion. Music is often able to uplift our moods, make us feel better, or bring out memories. But a new study published in Current Biology has found that there are people out there who don’t like music — their brains are, in a way, desensitized from the enjoyment of music.
In the study, the authors describe what has been dubbed “musical anhedonia,” or the inability to experience pleasure from music. The word anhedonia refers to a general inability to experience pleasure, or a selective loss of emotion. There is also sexual anhedonia, where a person is unable to feel pleasure from sexual experiences or orgasm.
Musical anhedonia, however, is a newly-termed notion. The researchers of the study believe that the condition is particular to people who can feel pleasure from other things, but not music. “The identification of these individuals could be very important to understanding the neural basis of music – that is, to understand how a set of notes [is] translated into emotions,” Josep Marco-Pallarés of the University of Barcelona said in a press release.
A study completed in 2011 came to a similar conclusion: The authors examined people who had an “impaired” emotional experience of music, “without any disturbance of other musical, neuropsychological abilities.”
In the most recent study, Marco-Pallarés and his team reviewed three different groups consisting of 10 people. One group involved people who had high pleasure responses to music; the second had average pleasure reactions, and the third had low sensitivity to music. The participants took part in two experiments: The first one involved listening to pleasant music, and the other had to do with winning or losing real money, both of which are activities that activate the reward center in the brain and involve dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotional responses and sees rewards.
The researchers found that there were some people — who were otherwise “healthy and happy” — who simply do not enjoy music and “show no autonomic responses to its sound, despite normal musical perception capacities.” These same people did, however, respond to monetary rewards. This means that the lack of sensitivity to music was unique, and not an abnormality involving the entire reward region of the brain.
“The idea that people can be sensitive to one type of reward and not another suggests that there might be different ways to access the reward system and that, for each person, some ways might be more effective than others,” Marco-Pallarés said.
Music and the Brain
What makes music so enjoyable and pleasurable? Most things that humans are driven toward — like sex or food — release endorphins and the feel-good hormone, dopamine, in the system, and the same goes for animals when it comes to those basic, instinctual needs. But studies have shown that animals don’t respond the same way to music that humans do — and music doesn’t exactly help us survive, or have a reason to be associated with primal instincts. Or does it? “[A]nimals don’t get intense pleasures to music,” Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist studying reward in the brain, told National Geographic. “So we knew there had to be a lot more to it.”
Salimpoor concludes that music is an intellectual reward, “an exercise for your whole brain.” Other studies have shown that music actually provides psychological benefits that lower the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as anxiety.