Do you hate yourself for sort of liking that new Lady Gaga song?
Science does not really have any solid explanations for why we can suddenly find ourselves hooked on a catchy new song. There are some theories, but the evolutionary value of a killer new punk anthem or a crashing symphony is still a complete mystery. All we really know is that we like how some sounds are strung together.
But a team of scientists has taken a step toward figuring out the effect new music has on our brains. Working under Robert Zatorre at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Valerie Salmpoor and her team conducted two experiments where they played music for participants to see how people’s brains react when they hear a new song they love.
“This research shows that human beings are able to extract pleasure from something purely abstract like music,” Salimpoor told Business Insider. “Essentially, what we are doing is taking these sounds that independently have no inherent reward value and we are extracting these patterns from them. To this, we are experiencing a lot of emotional arousal and that is rewarding.”
In the first experiment, they asked participants how they felt about new songs they heard and played a clever auction game to see how much people would be willing to pay for a new song — the same way you pay for a song on iTunes.
In the second, the researchers used brain imaging techniques to figure out exactly what goes on in people’s heads when they hear a catchy new tune.
Finding new music
They began by using the music recommendation features on Pandora, last.fm and iTunes to create a list of “new music” for the study because these three programs all use different methods for recommending new music. The researchers wanted to choose the freshest music possible and spent a fair amount of time consulting blogs, music stores, and other sources to refine their list.
They then played clips of songs and asked subjects to rate whether they liked the music, how the music made them feel (from “calm” to “extremely excited”), whether they had heard it before, and, how much they would be willing to pay for it.
The researchers gave each participant 10 dollars to spend on music, and said they could keep whatever they didn’t spend. The scientists set up a program that mimicked online music stores like iTunes: each person could listen to a 30-second clip of a song and then decide whether they wanted to buy it. Then the subjects would bid for each song with the exact amount they would be willing to pay for it.
The researchers assigned random prices to each song (between $0 and $2) and told the participants that five of the songs the each participant bid on would be randomly selected for them. If the price the participant bid for any chosen song happened to exceed the randomly generated price, the subjects would own the song but would have to pay for it with a portion of their $10.
Your brain on music
The scientists then conducted a second experiment where they scanned the brains of several of the participants to figure out what was going on when people liked a new song.
They found that new music stimulates activity in two important regions of the brain. The superior temporal gyrus — a region responsible for pattern recognition — compares new sounds to templates it has stored from previous experiences. It works in concert with the nucleus accumbens, which is the region that is deeply involved in expectations and prediction-making.
Whenever people liked a really liked a new song both regions buzzed with activity and formed connections with each other so robust the scientists were startled by the result.
“We can understand why people like different music,” Salimpoor said. “We can understand how all of these different experiences people have had in the past really shape our brains. You can’t find two people in the world who have the exact same preferences in music. This is the reason why… Each brain has been shaped by the music you have heard in the past.”
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