In everyday life humans regularly seek participation in highly complex and pleasurable experiences such as music listening, singing, or playing, that does not seem to have any specific survival advantage. Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into a pleasant and rewarding experience is a fascinating question which may be crucial to better understand the processing of abstract rewards in humans.
In a new study, scientists found the answer suggesting that dopamine — a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in our cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. It also plays a crucial role in the reward experience induced by music.
Study author Laura Ferreri, an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Lyon University said, “In the scientific literature, there was a lack of direct evidence showing that dopamine function is causally related to music-evoked pleasure. Therefore in this study, through a pharmacological approach, we wanted to investigate whether dopamine, which plays a major role in regulating pleasure experiences and motivation to engage in certain behaviors, plays a direct role in the experience of pleasure induced by music.”
During the study, scientists manipulated the dopaminergic transmission of 27 participants while they were listening to music. They conducted the study in three different sessions.
During those sessions, that are separated by one week at least, the experts orally administrated to each participant a dopamine precursor (levodopa, which increases dopaminergic availability), a dopamine antagonist (risperidone; to reduce dopaminergic signaling), and placebo (lactose; as a control). They discovered that the levodopa enhanced the ability to experience musical pleasure in risperidone impaired participants.
Ferreri said, “This study shows for the first time a causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure and motivation: enjoying a piece of music, deriving pleasure from it, wanting to listen to it again, being willing to spend money for it, strongly depend on the dopamine released in our synapses.”
“What we found sheds new light on the role of the human dopaminergic system in abstract rewards. Indeed, our findings challenge previous evidence conducted in animal models, where dopaminergic manipulations showed a clear role of dopamine in motivation and learning, but a controversial function in regulating hedonic responses in primary rewards such as food, mainly related to opioids release.”
“These results indicate that dopaminergic transmission in humans might play different or additive roles than the ones postulated in affective processing so far, particularly in abstract cognitive activities such as music listening.”
During the study, participants were willing to spend more money under the dopamine precursor levodopa than under the dopamine antagonist risperidone. This suggests that they were more motivated to listen to the music again when the dopaminergic transmission was enhanced than when it was blocked.
Ferreri said, “It is important to highlight that we were not looking for a magic pill able to increase the feelings of pleasure while listening to music. We were interested in finding the neurochemical mechanisms underpinning the music-evoked pleasure, and we used a pharmacological approach to address this question.”
“We cannot conclude that taking dopamine will increase your musical pleasure. What we can say is much more interesting: listening to the music you love will make your brain release more dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for humans’ emotional and cognitive functioning.”
The new findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.