Music is a ubiquitous phenomenon, present in every known human culture throughout history. Curiously, our desire for it far outstrips its apparent utility. Unlike other desirable activities such as eating or having sex, both of which are necessary for the survival of our species, music provides no immediate evolutionary advantage.
So why does it feel so good to throw on a pair of headphones and listen to our favourite track? The answer may lie in the way music we love manipulates our brain chemistry.
The pleasure centre
Both eating and having sex are — neurologically-speaking — rewarding. Both activities activate the brain's pleasure centre and cause dopamine — a chemical substance that facilitates communication within the central nervous system — to be released.
In fact, research has shown that, when listening to music we know well — and find pleasurable — dopamine is released multiple times during each track, and at distinct times in relation to moments of peak pleasure.
When we experience a 'peak pleasure' moment while listening, it's related to the release of dopamine at that precise moment. Interestingly, this release comes from a primitive part of the brain — the Ventral Striatum — connected with emotions and feelings; a region that we share with other animals.
However, this moment of peak pleasure is actually preceded about 10-15 sec by a release of dopamine from a different part of the brain — the Dorsal Striatum. This is critical to our understanding of how we respond emotionally to music, because that's a part of the brain that is implicated in expectation, specifically emotional expectation and anticipation.
High as a kite
In other words, when our favourite part of a track is approaching, we get an initial hit because we're anticipating what's coming up. Then, when we reach the best bit, we get another hit that 'seals the deal', so to speak. For a brief moment, we feel high as a kite.
And it just so happens that the so-called dopamine reward system is activated in a very similar way when we eat and have sex. Which may help explain why listening to music can feel so good..
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