November / December 2021
Editor's Lead In
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have proved what audiophiles have known all along: listening to music is better than having sex.
OK, so I've tweaked that introduction just a little, because what Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University actually discovered was that: "the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain important for the more tangible pleasures associated with rewards such as food, drugs and sex." The results of his research, published in the journal 'Nature Neuroscience', are one key to the reason why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so significant across all human societies.
"These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain," says Zatorre. "To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release. Abstract rewards are largely cognitive in nature, and this study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons."
I was pleased that the research by Zatorre and his team also confirmed the audiophile belief that one measure of the quality of a hi-fi system is whether you feel chills down your spine when listening, because I have been told many times in the past that this is just 'golden-eared guru gabbling.'
By measuring changes in skin conductance, heart rate, breathing, and temperature, as well as a combination of PET and MRI brain imaging techniques, Zatorre and his team proved that dopamine release is greater for pleasurable versus neutral music, and that levels of dopamine release correlate with the extent of emotional arousal. They reported that "Chills or musical frisson are well-established markers of peak emotional responses to music."
The team's conclusion, that their results "demonstrate that strongly felt emotions could be rewarding in themselves in the absence of a physically tangible reward or a specific functional goal," prove why we all have hi-fi systems in our homes.
But one Australian psychologist thinks we should have hi-fi systems in our workplaces as well. Dr. Greta Bradman says music can be particularly valuable at helping us focus in the workplace. "Music can actually stimulate certain brainwaves that are associated with being in flow," she says.
"Music that is between 50 to 80 beats per minute, that is tonal, that is fairly repetitive ... [and] without lyrics is sensational for focus."
However, she also says that listening to music you're unfamiliar with won't do the trick, and, in a downer for heavy metal fans, she says that the music that has proved to be particularly effective was composed back in the Baroque era, by the likes of J.S. Bach, Handel and Corelli.
So in order to be truly effective, you'd need play their music over and over again, after which it would be, says Bradman: "particularly effective at allowing us to meet the world in flow, at allowing us to find focus so that we can really attend to the task at hand for a prolonged period of time. If music is unfamiliar, you just don't light up the same reward pathways as happens for music that is familiar."
It would appear, however, that the good doctor does not always follow her own advice. She told ABC Radio National: "Daft Punk is my go-to music when I want to really regulate and be in sync with my emotions when… I want to achieve something."
Bradman also recommended to that radio program some very non-baroque music as being good for work focus — Ola Gjeilo's 'The Spheres', Nat Bartsch's 'Searching for the Map', Ludovico Einaudi's 'Una Mattina' and Taylor Swift's 'Willow'.
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