Sex + food + music = pure pleasure : MUHC researchers uncover the power of rhythm

By Julia Asselstine

You don’t have to be a musician to know that music evokes emotion. If you’ve been to the Montreal Jazz Festival you have most likely witnessed people in a trance-like state, from the musicians to the audience--smiling, swaying, tapping their feet, eyes closed, instinctively responding to the beat and rhythms pouring out from the stage.

According to research conducted by Dr. Robert Zatorre, MUHC James McGill Professor of Neuroscience, Montreal Neurological Institute, and Fellow Dr. Anne Blood (now a researcher at Harvard University) this is no surprise. A few years ago these scientists decided to study music and emotion by using brain imaging. They found that there was activity in certain parts of the brain that are thought to be associated with the reward system, sometimes referred to as the pleasure centre. This centre is normally responsive to biological meaningful stimuli.

“If you take a hungry animal and give it food you will see that this reward area of the brain is active,” says Dr. Zatorre. “This is where the brain is noticing that what is occurring now is very good. So if you are a hungry animal in the wild and you find something to eat and it tastes really good, the reward system in your brain will tell you that this is good, positive and important for survival, and tell you to try to get more of this stuff if you can. It is a self-guidance mechanism. Conversely, pain is an avoidance mechanism. Sex also stimulates the reward system. Both food and sex are necessary for survival—if you don’t eat you will die, if you don’t have sex you won’t reproduce and the species goes down the tubes.”

The fact that music seems to engage some of the same mechanisms is interesting because it is not, strictly speaking, a biological meaningful stimulus in the sense that humans don’t absolutely need it to survive. We could live without music. You might not be so happy without it but it’s not like food or water: you wouldn’t starve—and you wouldn’t fail to reproduce.

Biologically meaningful or not, anthropologists have determined that every society on earth has music, including tribes that are very technologically primitive. And a recent survey indicates that music ranks in the top five of the most “pleasurable things” for humans.

“This suggests that music has some very, very deep roots,” says Dr. Zatorre. “It engages some of the most primitive basic centres of our brains that have to do with survival and pleasure, reward and motivation. Before we did the study, people thought that pleasure associated with music was just mediated through our knowledge of music.”

To further support this research, current experiments are demonstrating that the main neurotransmitter involved in music and emotion is dopamine, typically the “reward” molecule.

So whether at the Jazz Festival, or while simply listening to your favourite musician at home, reward yourself--don’t fight that natural, biological, deep-rooted urge to tap your feet, move your hips or close your eyes and let yourself succumb to the pure pleasure of music.