Axmacher, N., Montag, C., & Reuter, M. (2011). How one’s favorite song activates the reward circuitry of the brain: Personality matters! Behavioural Brain Research 225, 511-514. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from Scholars Portal Journals
Researchers Christian Montag, Martin Reuter, and Nikolai Axmacher at the University of Bonn in Germany investigated two intriguing questions in the neuroscience of music and emotions. First, they wanted to compare brain activity when one listens to one’s favourite song and when one listens to one’s most unlikeable song. Second, they wanted to find out how this brain activity might relate to one’s personality traits, particularly the traits of “self-transcendence” and “absorption abilities”.
The researchers conducted their study on 33 undergraduate psychology students, who first had to complete two questionnaires for personality assessment: the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) and the Tellegen Absorption Scale. Then, the participants listened to their favourite and most unlikeable songs for three minutes each via earphones in the fMRI machine.
Citing the results of another study that linked the activity of the nucleus accumbens (ventral striatum) to the peak of experienced positive emotionality and the activity of the caudate nucleus to the anticipation of that emotional peak, the researchers hypothesized that there would be substantially increased activity of these areas when listening to the self-selected pleasant song as compared to the self-selected unpleasant song. The statistical fMRI analyses confirmed this. There was significant activation of the insula and the cuneus as well.
The researchers also hypothesized that participants with high scores in the traits of absorption (according to the Tellegen Absorption Scale) and/or “self-forgetfulness” (a subscale of the “self-transcendence” trait in the TCI) would demonstrate higher activity in the ventral striatum when listening to their favourite songs. But surprisingly, the results revealed a negative correlation between “self-forgetfulness” and ventral striatum activity. That is, people who described themselves as being prone to absorption by music or other arts were actually not so absorbed while listening to their favourite songs. The researchers explained that perhaps these individuals needed another surrounding – other than a noisy fMRI setting – or needed to feel more intensity and closeness to the arts to achieve the state of absorption.
I am really fascinated by the results of this study. In my opinion, the fact that the results indicated a negative correlation between “self-forgetfulness” and ventral striatum activity, even though the researchers expected a positive correlation between the two, perhaps points to the inherent difficulty of conducting a scientific investigation of such a subjective matter as individual emotional responses to music.
I think that there are many factors involved here. First of all, I do agree with the researchers that some people could find a noisy fMRI setting distracting, thus preventing them from becoming absorbed in the music. But I am not so sure that there is a clear connection between the tendency towards self-forgetfulness and the need for a different surrounding to become immersed in music. I think that listening habits simply vary among individuals. Some people listen to their MP3 players in noisy public spaces and still seem to be really absorbed, as they tap their feet, nod their heads, or hum along. Others prefer to enjoy music in a quieter, more private space; perhaps alone at home. I do not believe that those who require a more peaceful environment are necessarily less or more self-forgetful. For instance, certain individuals, regardless of whether they are highly self-forgetful or not, may just happen to have very sensitive hearing and simply cannot enjoy music in a noisy surrounding, even if they might love to otherwise. I would have liked to see what sort of questions were on the TCI questionnaire and what my “self-forgetfulness” score would be. (Unfortunately, I could not find a (free) online version of the TCI.)
More importantly, it seems to me that there is a difference between being moved by the music and being moved by the music to an emotional peak, which is what ventral striatum activity is supposed to indicate. I would imagine that reaching an emotional peak is a gradual process that might take longer or shorter depending on the individual. This was not taken into account in the present study, since each listening session invariably lasted three minutes.
Related to this is the fact that some music just requires more time to unfold. What if my favourite piece of music is, say, Barber’s Adagio for Strings? The duration of this piece is approximately ten minutes. The music gradually builds to a climax around seven minutes into the piece and the ending fades away. Listening to just the first three minutes might be insufficient to give me the experience of an emotional peak. The same result would perhaps be expected even if I were to listen to three minutes of music around the climactic moment, as this excerpt would be completely out of context; a peak cannot exist without the build-up to it.
Nevertheless, as a performer, I am very intrigued by the link of ventral striatum activity to the peak of experienced positive emotionality. So instead of just having participants listen to music, in the future, I hope that it would be possible to conduct a study that measures the ventral striatum activity of performers and listeners in a setting that more closely resembles a concert. I would be especially curious to know whether there would be high ventral striatum activity in both performers and listeners at the same moments during the performance. Put another way, would the listeners be more likely to become absorbed by the music when the performers themselves are? Or would the listeners be more likely to achieve the state of musical absorption when the performers are more objectively in control of their performance?