Stimulating neural pathways can influence how much you enjoy music, McGill study finds

By stimulating neural pathways, a team of Quebec researchers was able in a recent experiment to influence how much a group a twenty-somethings enjoyed their favourite music.

Montreal Neuro scientists hope to use musical mind control research for good, not advertising

The researchers found that they could stimulate or inhibit certain parts of the brain to make the test participants enjoy the music more or less. (CBC)

By stimulating neural pathways, a team of Quebec researchers was able in a recent experiment to influence how much a group a twenty-somethings enjoyed their favourite music.

The results of the Montreal Neurological Institute study might spur feelings of mistrust or dystopian images of mass-marketing mind control.

But as McGill professor Alain Dagher tells it, the chances of this kind of technology being used to win over consumers is slim to none.

"We don't have an interest to use this method to help sell music," Dagher, a co-author of the study, told CBC's All in a Weekend.

Instead, he's hoping the process can be adapted to serve a more noble cause: in this case as an alternative treatment for mental illnesses such as depression or addiction.

McGill researchers have been working on ways to impact how people respond to music. Earlier this fall, another study looked at how musician Sting's brain looks when he imagines music. (McGill University)

How it works

Dagher and his co-authors published the study last month in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. 

A group of 20 subjects in their 20s listened to music selected by the researchers and rated how much they enjoyed it, how it made them feel and how likely they would be to go out and buy it. Their brain responses were also measured. 

The researchers found they were able to make the test subjects feel more positive about the music by stimulating their fronto-striatal pathways. When these pathways were inhibited, the subjects felt less positive.

Researchers did this using a "non-invasive brain stimulation technique" called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Basically, they used magnetic pulses to either stimulate or inhibit selected parts of the brain.

Listeners not only said they enjoyed the same song more or less based on the TMS, but the researchers were also able to measure a physical response that confirmed the self-reported findings. 

"We measured their skin response because it measures emotional arousal, like a lie detector machine," said Dagher.

Potential applications

So while this sounds like a perfect way to market a product to an unwilling consumer, Dagher says that's not a likely outcome of the research. 

The TMS machine is big, bulky and immobile, and it isn't capable of changing a listener's taste completely, just making small enhancements or adjustments in perception.

It hasn't yet been proven whether the TMS has the ability to make someone enjoy a piece of music, or even a genre, they normally wouldn't. Dagher says that would require more testing.

The music used in the experiment was selected from genres the participants already professed to liking.

Professor Alain Dagher co-authored the study, published last month. (Christinne Muschi/McGill Magazine)

The only reason the team asked about willingness to buy was to monitor how much the subject was moved to action by the "emotional arousal."

Dagher said the results could affect how technology is used to treat diseases that are related to motivation, desire and apathy.

He suggested inhibiting an addict's brain when it responds to cues like drugs or alcohol — or stimulating a depressed person's brain — could prove effective when combined with behavioural therapies.

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend