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Music Tickles the Reward Centers in the Brain

Now That the Holidays Are Gone

Your Music List Upgraded

Music is a big part of our lives. But if you teach, there’s a chance, it’s an even bigger part of your student’s life. In this post, we’ll see if we can sharpen up your use of music.

You’re likely to have a bit of time this summer to work on your music, since the school year gets pretty hectic. Next month, we’ll show you the newest Alzheimer’s disease interventions.

Recent Discovery

We know that music tickles the reward centers in the brain just like other pleasurable, but evolutionarily significant, experiences. It also appears that music rewards the listener to the degree that the music is found to be pleasant.

There are many studies which suggest that the right music can influence the brain’s reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. The beauty of this is that classroom learning can get associated with positive feelings.

Why is this important? Two reasons come to mind: 1) emotional learning supports long-term memory, and 2) when positive emotions are associated with school, kids attend classes more and are more likely to develop a love of learning.

Unlike a concrete reward, music can arouse feelings of euphoria and pleasure. Scientists used PET scans and found endogenous dopamine release at peak emotional arousal during music listening (Salimpoor, et al. 2011). The time course of dopamine release was also curious; dopamine was more involved during anticipation of the music, and then again at the experience of peak emotional responses.

Put in teacher terms, even the anticipation of an abstract reward (listening to the music for pleasure) can result in dopamine release, distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. By the way, dopamine release is highly beneficial for several things. One, it fosters a love of learning; second, it supports working memory. Both of those are very good in a classroom!

On the other hand, unpleasant music seems to involve a different region of the brain. In another study, scientists played music that contained dissonant chords varying in their degree of unpleasantness. They used brain imaging technology to observe and measure changes in brain activity as participants listened to the music. They found that the more dissonant the music, the less pleasant the participants reported the experience. Additionally, patterns of brain activity emerged that were consistent across subjects. Most active during the more dissonant sections of the music was a site in the brain that is physically situated between the cortex and the limbic system. Known as the paralimbic cortical area, this region mediates between cognition and emotion.

The choice of music you use DOES matter; not all music is good!

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