Music is an extremely ancient activity, which humans have participated in and enjoyed for tens of thousands of years. Music can take us on an emotional ride from sadness to happiness or from anger to peaceful. It can take us on a trip through the past as we replay our childhood or paint us a vivid picture of the future. There is no denying that music triggers a reaction in our brain and as a result what we feel.
Music has withstood the test of time and has remained prevalent across virtually every form of human culture, so it gives reason to believe that music is satisfying some sort of universal need in humans. However, little has been discovered about why music has been so important to humans for such a long time.
Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal has dedicated her life work to learning music’s mysteries after a single composition almost instantaneously lifted her out of deep funk.
Salimpoor has recently reported that music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same structure that releases the “pleasure chemical” dopamine during sex and eating. Furthermore, music can actually drive addictive behavior as well. It is interesting to note, that Animals get the same thrill from food and sex as humans do, but despite a few outliers, animals do not derive the same response from music. This gives credence to the idea that music truly does have a profound affect on human brain activity.
Salimpoor continued to explain that music also activates the amygdala, which “is involved with the processing of emotion, as well as areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in abstract decision making. When we’re listening to music, the most advanced areas of the brain tie in the most ancient.”
In the experiments that Salimpoor and her colleagues conducted they discovered people were willing to pay more money for the songs, which triggered the strongest response from both the emotional reward and intellectual parts of the brain. The results of the experiment suggest that people get both a sensory reward from music and a direct intellectual one too.
Valorie Salimpoor believes that the nature of this reward has to do with pattern recognition and prediction, meaning that when an unfamiliar piece of music unfolds our brains predict how it will continue to unfold. When a piece of music develops in a way that is both slightly novel but still in line with our brain’s predictions, we tend to like it a lot, because we’ve made a kind of intellectual conquest.
The discoveries by Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues help to explain a great deal about the influence of music on our evolutionary progress. The way in which humans recognize patterns and generalize from past experiences in order to predict what is likely to happen in the future is something humans do far better than any other animal. Our ability to imagine as a species has had a huge impact on our ability to take over the world.