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, this is the nucleus accumbens which is involved in forming expectations that may be rewarding. 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 that the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend.
The second important finding is that the nucleus accumbens doesn’t work alone, but interacts with the auditory cortex, an area of the brain that stores information about the sounds and music we have been exposed to. The more a given piece was rewarding, the greater the cross-talk between these regions. Similar interactions were also seen between the nucleus accumbens and other brain areas, involved in high-level sequencing, complex pattern recognition and areas involved in assigning emotional and reward value to stimuli. In other words, the brain assigns value to music through the interaction of ancient dopaminergic reward circuitry, involved in reinforcing behaviours that are absolutely necessary for our survival such as eating and sex, with some of the most evolved regions of the brain, involved in advanced cognitive processes that are unique to humans.
“This is interesting because music consists of a series of sounds that when considered alone have no inherent value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward, says Dr. Robert Zatorre, researcher at The Neuro and co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research. “The integrated activity of brain circuits involved in pattern recognition, prediction, and emotion allow us to experience music as an aesthetic or intellectual reward.”
“The brain activity in each participant was the same when they were listening to music that they ended up purchasing, although the pieces they chose to buy were all different,” adds Dr. Salimpoor. “These results help us to see why people like different music — 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.”