60-Second Science

Musical Chills Related to Brain Dopamine Release

The same basic brain chemistry involved in the pleasurable sensations of sex and drugs comes into play with rock 'n' roll (and opera). Karen Hopkin reports

[Music plays] Did Pavarotti finishing Nessun Dorma give you chills? If so, you can thank the molecule dopamine for those shudders of delight. Because a new study shows that musical thrills stem from the same brain chemistry responsible for the joys of food, sex and other more tangible rewards. The work appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience. [Valorie Salimpoor et al, Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music]

Many of the activities that give us pleasure are things that we, as a species, need to survive, like the aforementioned eating and mating. But what about more esoteric enjoyment, from evocative music or other works of art? Do they tickle the brain the same way?

To find out, scientists recruited subjects who reliably gets shivers when they listen to an affecting score. These chills are a more consistent, in-the-moment measure of pleasure than asking subjects to describe what they’re feeling.

The scientists then used brain imaging techniques to find that dopamine peaks along with emotional arousal. Such induced dopamine release could explain why people put a high value on some music. And why music can manipulate our emotions.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group

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