QJScience: Musical Anhedonia

Music is a fundamental aspect of most peoples’ everyday lives. We listen to it at the gym, while doing homework and at every party we’ve ever been to. Who wouldn’t love music?

You might be surprised to learn that approximately two per cent of the population doesn’t appreciate music at all. A recent study lead by Dr. Robert Zatorre from Montreal’s Neurological Institute of McGill University discovered this new condition, which is termed “musical anhedonia”.

This condition is characterized by individuals who understand the type of emotion a certain song is portraying, but are physically incapable of experiencing this emotion themselves. For example, upon hearing ‘Angel’ by Sarah Mclachlan, most people would experience a sense of sadness or sombreness. Someone with musical anhedonia, on the other hand, wouldn’t feel sadness, although they would understand this was the emotion the song intended to express.

The study was carried out on 500 students at the University of Barcelona. Students were asked a variety of questions to gauge how they reacted to music, such as “if you were to hear music right now, would you instinctively start tapping your foot to the beat?” Of these 500 students, 10 had extremely low scores. Researchers then played music for these 10 individuals and assessed their heart rate and skin conductance as a measure of their arousal. While most people have increased heart rate and skin conductance when listening to music, these ten students had a flatline response.

Our response to music comes from our reward system. For example, if we’re experiencing something positive, it signals our brain to make us feel good. There are known cases where an individual’s response system doesn’t function properly, preventing them from feeling any pleasure whatsoever. To date, this was known as an all-or-nothing system. In order to test if these 10 students were simply unable to experience any form of pleasure, Dr. Zatorre and colleagues asked them to partake in a video gambling game. Large money rewards were presented to players unexpectedly throughout the game. The 10 students still physically responded to this money reward, suggesting they could experience pleasure to stimuli other than music.

This is a novel study because it provides insight into how the reward system interacts with the brain. As mentioned, it was previously thought that this was an all-or-nothing system; it hadn’t occurred to scientists that this system might differ from person to person. Many of our behaviours are a result of how our reward system functions, and several societal issues are due to the misregulation of this reward system, such as eating disorders and alcoholism.

Dr. Zatorre believes many people mask their musical anhedonia because they’re afraid of not fitting in. He suspects now that this study has been published, more people will admit to having this condition, and that it could have broad implications on how researchers approach problems involving the response system.

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