Unlike other creatures, humans can compose, record, and enjoy music. A new study has identified a brain chemical that provides pleasure when people listen to certain music. Where did this amazing ability come from?
The study demonstrated that when a listener deeply enjoys music, the brain employs the same chemistry that brings pleasurable sensations from certain other activities. The reaction involves dopamine, a tiny chemical that is mostly produced by special cells near the middle of the brain to be used as a neurotransmitter to activate neurons.
Dopamine “docks” into a reverse-dopamine-shaped cavity in one of five types of larger receptor molecules. The attached chemical then triggers a cascade of biochemical events inside the nerve cell, and this complex, specified machinery triggers a pleasure sensation.
Dopamine is used in many vital body systems, and new functions for it await discovery. However, as a neurotransmitter, dopamine is also known to imprint the memory of a pleasure-causing event.1 Valorie Salimpoor, a McGill University neuroscientist, told Discovery News, “The intense pleasure we get from [music] is actually biologically reinforcing in the brain, and now here’s proof for it.”2
She was lead author of the Nature Neuroscience paper that reported the findings.3 She and the rest of the McGill team used PET scans, which produce brain images that can indicate neuron activity, to positively identify dopamine production “in response to music that elicited ‘chills.'”4
Humans have a unique capacity to experience music. Dogs, for instance, hear the sounds of music but do not recognize them as music, and do not derive a similar pleasure from listening to them. This solely human characteristic, which has no apparent evolutionary purpose, makes sense if people were originally intended to enjoy their Creator through pleasurable activities ordained by Him.
Scripture notes in many places that participating in music is a means to commune with God and enjoy Him.5 For example, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him.”6
Earlier research into babies’ physical response to music prompted the comment, “It remains a mystery how humans evolved our musical wiring, [though] it’s now clear that we enjoy it and always did.”7 But it is only a mystery for evolution to explain. These discoveries confirm that people are the product of special creation, with musical enjoyment as a unique built-in function.
- Thomas, B. Science and the Bible Agree: Casual Sex Is Bad. ICR News. Posted on icr.org July 14, 2009, accessed February 15, 2011.
- Sohn, E. Why Music Makes You Happy. Discovery News. Posted January 10, 2011, accessed February 15, 2011.
- Salimpoor, V. N. et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience. 14 (2): 257-262.
- Musical chills: why they give us thrills. McGill University press release, January 10, 2011.
- Thomas, B. Evolution Can’t Explain Dancing Babies. ICR News. Posted March 24, 2010, accessed February 15, 2011.
- Psalm 28:7.
- Telis, G. Video: Babies Are Born to Dance. Science NOW. Posted on news.sciencemag.org March 15, 2010, accessed February 15, 2011.
* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.