Music reward and personality

Article:  Montag, C., Reuter, M., & Axmacher, N. (2011). How one’s favorite song activates the reward circuitry of the brain: Personality matters! Behavioural Brain Research, 225, 511-514. Retrieved October 15, 2011, from Scholars Portal Journals

This new journal article makes an interesting contribution to recent findings regarding music and reward in the brain. We know that the brain’s core reward system reacts strongly to our very favourite pieces of music – now it appears that this effect can be modulated by our personality.

Valorie Salimpoor

In January of this year I wrote a blog about an article by Valorie Salimpoor and colleagues, which examined the effect of listening to a favourite piece of music on the brain’s reward system. You can read the blog here. In summary, Valarie showed that our brain goes through a two stage response when listening to a piece of music that gives us ‘chills’ – a shiver down the spine, hairs on the back of the neck standing on end, and so on.

1)      Activity in the caudate nucleus was associated with the anticipation of an emotional peak in music (the ‘chill’)

2)      Activity in the nucleus accumbens (the main part of the ventral striatum) was associated with the actual peak itself – the moment when self reports of a musical chill were highest.

This was a breakthrough finding, and it has been widely cited in the literature all year as well as in many talks that I have seen. A new paper in the journal Behavioural Brain Research by Christian Montag and colleagues builds on this work with two new innovations.

1)      Instead of using the same songs as favourite music and controls across participants (as Valarie did) Christian compared each person’s brain activity while they listened to their self-selected most and least favourite song. I don’t think this is any better or worse necessarily as a method: It lacks the stringent control over the music from the previous study, but it is a neat way of maximising any activity that is linked to music preference.

2)      The new study included measures of personality which were expected to correlate with musical enjoyment. The researchers selected ‘self-transcendence’ as a likely candidate for an effect, as this trait is linked to the ability to become absorbed in music (akin to a flow state)

Caudate Nucleus

Predictions: Significantly higher activation of the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens in response to hearing a favourite song as compared to a heavily disliked song. Furthermore that a high score on the ‘self-transcendence’ (absorption) scale would modulate the effect, in a positive relationship (higher trait score = more brain activity)

Method:  33 students were scanned in fMRI while listening to their own self selected favourite piece or most disliked piece (both around 3 minutes long). The vast range of chosen songs can be viewed in the paper, by following the link at the top of the blog.

Results: As expected the authors found higher activity in the reward areas of the brain in response to hearing a favourite piece. They did not see a two stage response, but that was because they took no active measure of the chill experience as it evolved in real time (as in Salimpoor et al.) But still, it is nice to see the replication of the reward system activation in response to music: in this case, in the right nucleus accumbens, bilateral insula and left caudate nucleus (although the authors were unable to isolate activity in the striatal areas in the same region due to power issues).

The authors also found a strong relationship between the ‘self-forgetfulness’ subscale of the ‘self-transcendence’ scale (taken from the Temperament and Character Inventory scale) and activity in the ventral striatum. Interestingly, it was negative meaning that higher level of ‘self-forgetfulness’ was related to lower levels of brain activity. Score on this trait subscale explained 25% of the variance in ventral striatum activity. No correlations were found between score on personality and activity in either the caudate nucleus or the insula.

Conclusions: The findings reinforce the importance of the ventral striatum and the caudate nucleus for experiencing pleasure while listening to music. It also brings into the debate the role of activity in the insula, which is not always reported in these types of studies.

Why did the authors find a negative relationship with ‘self-transcendence’ and brain activity when they were expecting a positive one? The authors postulate that this may reflect the testing conditions –  it is hard to really become absorbed in your favourite music when it is only played for 3 minutes in a noisy fMRI machine.

The authors argue that score on ‘self-transcendence’, and specifically ‘self-forgetfulness’, correlates with “the pure joy experience” (p. 514) of listening to music.

You can view a nice student blog from the University of Toronto about the paper here