Mind the Brain Podcast Episode 02: The Neuroscience of Music – Anticipation and Reward

For the second in my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with Robert Zatorre, who is a Professor in the Department of Neurology at McGill University. His lab studies the function of our auditory systems, in the context of complex cognitive functions like speech and music. He studies not only the sensory perception of speech and music, but also what is happening in our brains when we try and understand and react to those sounds.

In this podcast, we discuss another major focus of this lab, which is the relationship between music, emotion, and reward. We start by discussing why neuroscientists like to study music, and what makes it unique in terms of its perceptual and emotional qualities. We then dive into some of the work Robert’s lab has been doing over the past ten years, in terms of the effects that music has on the reward systems in our brain. His lab has shown that not only can music evoke strong emotional pleasure, but that when it does, its effects in the brain are very similar to rewarding stimuli like food, sex, and drugs of abuse.

Finally, we talk about why this might be case. Why should music be so rewarding, if it’s not required for our survival? It could be related to the fact that one of the core features of music is a component of anticipation, which is computed in time. Our brains are extremely good at making predictions, and it’s very rewarding to us when we can make accurate predictions about future events, because that’s how we learn. So the anticipation that is inherent in music might be taking advantage of a very fundamental function of our brains.

You can listen to and download the podcast here.

Please enjoy, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can read Robert’s recent “Gray Matter” article in the New York Times.

You can also read some of this scholarly publications here, here, and here.


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