A new study published by Frontiers explains how music can flood your brain with positive emotions. When neuroscientists investigated the source of “chills” that many people get while listening to music, they linked the experience to multiple brain regions involved in activating reward and pleasure systems.
The study was focused on 18 participants with an average age of 40 who reported regularly getting the chills during their favorite songs. A team led by Thibault Chabin at the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté used electroencephalogram (EEG) scans to detect electrical activity in the brains of the individuals as they listened to music. The participants were asked to document when they experienced chills and to rate their degree of pleasure from them.
“Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate ‘chill-producing’ moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments,” said Chabin.
At the exact times when the participants experienced chills, Chabin identified specific electrical activity in several brain regions including: the orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in emotional processing; the supplementary motor area, which regulates the planning of complex movement; and the right temporal lobe, which is involved in auditory processing and musical appreciation.
These three brain regions coordinate their activity to process music, trigger the brain’s reward systems, and to release the feel-good hormone dopamine. It is this series of events that produces the chills – a physiological response thought to indicate greater cortical connectivity.
“The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with EEG brings opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups,” said Chabin. “This represents a good perspective for musical emotion research.”
The EEG scans revealed that when the individuals felt chills, low frequency electrical signals called “theta activity” either increased or decreased in the brain regions that are involved in musical processing. Theta activity is associated with successful memory performance in the context of high rewards and musical appreciation.
“Contrary to heavy neuroimaging techniques such as PET scan or fMRI, classic EEG can be transported outside of the lab into naturalistic scenarios,” said Chabin. “What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music.”
As we wait for the chill-inducing parts of music, our brains are busy anticipating the future and releasing dopamine. Evolutionarily speaking, being able to predict what will happen next is essential for survival.
During the trials, the participants reported more than 300 chills which lasted an average of 8.75 seconds. The same brain regions associated with increased activity in this study have been previously linked to musical pleasure in PET and fMRI studies. Going forward, the researchers plan to continue to study the chills.
“We want to measure how cerebral and physiological activities of multiple participants are coupled in natural, social musical settings,” said Chabin. “Musical pleasure is a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be investigated further, in order to understand why music is rewarding and unlock why music is essential in human lives.”
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.