An interesting paper was just published in Nature Neuroscience recently (online January 9, 2011). Dr. Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues demonstrated for the first time that music enjoyment results from the release of the pleasure-seeking neurotransmitter dopamine deep within the ancient parts of our brain, the limbic system. Using imaging techniques, PET and functional MRI or fMRI, and linking this data to when people feel the most enjoyment from their music of choice, they show that dopamine is released in the caudate and the nucleus accumbens regions in our brains. Interestingly, the dopamine levels increased both in anticipation of the enjoyment as well as at peak enjoyment levels, although dopamine levels rose at a greater rate during peak enjoyment in the nucleus accumbens while decreased during the peak in the caudate regions. What this means is yet to be deciphered completely.
Why does this matter? Previous reports have implicated dopamine in pleasure from music in the past, however none have done so directly. Also, this clearly shows that these regions within the limbic system are used for more than just survival. An ancient part of our brain is wired to enjoy the less tangible things like music. It helps to explain why music is so important and is such a part of our daily lives. It’s everywhere and it’s used to evoke emotions and to sell us stuff all the time!