The Science of Rock 'n' Roll

Your Brain On Rock: Pt 1

Scientists are fascinated by the relationship between music and the human brain.  From an evolutionary perspective, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for humans to make music yet there’s never been a culture that hasn’t felt the need to make it.

There are three areas of the brain responsible for secreting a hormone called dopamine:  the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala and the cerebellum.  Dopamine a neurotransmitter and controls the body’s natural reward and response pleasure centers.  In other words, it is the natural “feel good” hormone.  Whenever the body receives a jolt of dopamine, it finds it pleasurable.  Consciously or unconsciously, we embark on a constant search to find those things that make our brains secrete dopamine in response.

For example, sex (especially orgasm) and certain drugs (like cocaine) result in dopamine production.  The hormone is an important factor in understanding addictions and our need to experience and re-experience certain sensations. Music can also stimulate dopamine production.  Chills down your spine, goose bumps and an urge to sing and dance are all results of dopamine flooding the bloodstream.

An MP3 file is a compressed version of a much larger sound file created with a mathematical algorithm.  It can reduce the size of a .wav file (the sound format of compact discs) up a factor of ten (i.e. a 50 megabyte file can be shrunk to 5 megabytes).  This is accomplished by stripping out all the music that’s cannot be heard by the human ear using the well-known principles of psychoacoustics.

While most people probably cannot tell the difference between a song played via MP3 file, a .wav file or vinyl, it’s possible each format feels different.  One theory says that when we hear and MP3 version of a song, different neurons are fired than when we hear an uncompressed digital file or an analog version.  If that’s the case, the connections between the sound reception centers of our brain and the emotional centers may not be as strong.  If the connections aren’t as strong, then the brain may not secrete the same amount of dopamine prompted by uncompressed digital or analog sounds.  As a result, listening to a familiar song as an MP3 might not feel as good.

Another theory suggests that when the brain hears a song as an MP3, it somehow knows that something is missing.  Even though the ear cannot perceive up to 90% of the program material in any given sound, the brain can.  When the brain processes a MP3 song, some studies suggest it tries to fill in those blanks—the stripped out audio—with something else.  It’s possible that the brain reaches for an analog memory of the song.  Or perhaps it just finds nothing.  Whatever the case, this process takes a few extra milliseconds, delaying the trip of the music to our consciousness as the brain works harder to perceive what’s being heard.  This again disrupts any connections with the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and the cerebellum, stunting dopamine production.  Once again, the result may be that compressed digital music may make us feel good than if we heard the same material from a .wav or analog source.

photo by: everyone's idle

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