Researchers have discovered how to trick your brain into liking music more—or less. By using magnets to either stimulate or disrupt key brain circuits, a team from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University was even able to convince participants that some music was worth spending more (or less) money on.
The technique they used is known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). It works by pulsing and, as the name suggests, stimulating specific parts of the brain. When the researchers targeted the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and excited the neurons in that region, the participants suddenly became willing to spend around 10 percent more money on the songs being played than the people in the control group (whose neurons were left alone). And when another group’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was inhibited, they were only willing to spend 15 percent less than the control group. A paper detailing the findings was published today in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
Magnets have the potential to alter our mood by influencing the neurotransmitters within our brains. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is known to release dopamine when it’s applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex like it was for the first group of participants, who ended up liking the music more. They became physically able to experience more pleasure while they were listening.
“Showing that pleasure and value of music can be changed by the application of TMS is not only an important—and remarkable—demonstration that the circuitry behind these complex responses is now becoming better understood, but it also has possible clinical applications,” senior author Robert Zatorre, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery said in a statement. “Many psychological disorders such as addiction, obesity, and depression involve poor regulation of reward circuitry. Showing that this circuit can be manipulated so specifically in relation to music opens the door for many possible future applications in which the reward system may need to be up- or down-regulated.”
In 2016, previous researchers showed in an unrelated paper that the prefrontal cortex was crucial to the differences in personal taste in music. But this recent experiment was the first time anyone had tested key circuits of the brain to see whether they were linked to reward when listening to music. Based on the outcomes, the researchers were able to confidently say that variables like perceived pleasure and monetary value can be influenced by correctly manipulating the right areas of the brain.
“This indicates that the role of these circuits in learning and motivation may be indispensable for the experience of musical pleasure,” first author and postdoctoral fellow Ernest Mas Herrero said in the statement.