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Listening To New Music “Lights Up” Our Brains, Says Canadian Study
April 12, 2013
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Music stimulates your brain, particularly the "pleasure centre". And really, anytime you can get one of your "pleasure centres" going, how can you possibly say no.

Scientists at McGill University in Montreal say that part of our brain becomes particularly active when we hear a song for the first time.

In their research, the scientists used 19 volunteers and played them 60 excerpts of new music, based on their musical taste.

The volunteers listened to 30 seconds of each song while undergoing MRI scans, and could then buy the song they liked in a pretend online music store.

By analyzing the scans, the scientists could see if the brain was "lighting up" and depending on the level of activity, they could predict whether the person would buy a song or not.

"As they are listening to this music, we can look at their brain activity and figure out how they are appreciating or enjoying this music before they even tell us anything," said Dr. Valorie Salimpoor, one of the researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

listening-to-new-music-lights-up-our-brains-says-canadian-study-feature2.jpg" And that's part of this new direction that neuroscience is going in - trying to understand what people are thinking, and inferring their thoughts and motivations and eventually their behaviour through their brain activity," she told the BBC.

"What's cool is that you're anticipating and getting excited over something entirely abstract - and that's the next sound that is coming up."

Salimpoor said the more the person liked what they were listening to, the more stimulated the reward region of the brain would become.

That part of the brain is known as the nucleus accumbens, which is operated by the chemical dopamine which promotes desire.

"When people listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, activity in one brain region can reliably and consistently predict whether they will like or buy it," Salimpoor told The Telegraph.

"What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is an indicator that expectations were met or surpassed."

"And in our study we found the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend," she said.

The researchers (Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre below left) also found that the nucleus accumbens was connecting with another part of the brain called the auditory cortex.

listening-to-new-music-lights-up-our-brains-says-canadian-study-feature5.jpg "This part of the brain will be unique for each individual, because we've all heard different music in the past," Salimpoor said.

"Each person has their own uniquely shaped auditory cortex, which is formed based on all the sounds and music heard throughout our lives. Also, the sound templates we store are likely to have previous emotional associations."

Now, the researchers want to explore how this shapes our taste in music, and whether our brain activity can explain why we like different styles.

The study is published in the journal Science.

And shameless plug here - if you want to really reward your brain, tune in to the Strombo Show Sunday nights at 8pm on CBC Radio 2.

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