Science has moved a step closer to understanding our relationship with music.
The appropriately named Psyche Loui, assistant professor at Wesleyan University, has identified specific neurological pathways connecting the auditory with the emotional areas of the brain.
Scientists have often wondered why human beings find pleasure in things that appear to offer no evolutionary value. To help answer the question, Loui wanted to better understand the physical connection between sensory experiences and pleasurable feelings. In other words, why do we have this reaction to music?
Along with former thesis student Matt Sachs, she carried out an experiment, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, in which ten people who reported getting the "chills" when listening to their favourite music, were compared to ten more who said they never experienced this reaction.
When their favourite track was played, the chill group showed increased heart rate and skin conductance and, crucially, the MRI scanner showed increased connectivity between the auditory regions of the brain (the superior temporal gyrus) and the area which processes emotions (the anterior insula and medial prefrontal cortex).
In comparison, when the the non-chillers were measured, these pathways were still used, but to a far lesser degree. It is the first time these pathways have been properly studied.
“It’s an auditory channel toward socially and emotionally relating to other people. Perhaps good song writing requires finding that auditory channel that appeals to listeners’ social and emotional systems.”
However, according to Loui, it remains to be seen if this pathway is exclusive to music or if it is used when we react to other types of art or perceptual stimulus.