Seeing Danny O’Donoghue with his brokenhearted face and hearing him sing those heartfelt lyrics would make anyone feel the music’s emotions…well, not everybody. And it’s not just a matter of taste.
Besides Danny, there’s another man who can’t be moved. This time it’s because he can’t feel any pleasure, sadness or excitement from music.
There are songs that just hit us “right in the feels” but for 71 year old man (let’s call him “Bob”), this experience was lost after tissue death in his right parietal lobe (Satoh et. al, 2011).
“Bob” first complained of dizziness. He was admitted to the hospital after CT scan revealed that the right parietal lobe was less dense than other parts of his brain. Tests showed no evidence of disturbance in his ability to speak, understand language, see or any other cognitive function commonly associated with that area. Soon enough, he was discharged.
Everything seemed fine until he realized he can’t feel any emotions from listening to music, even from his favorite songs and artists! He thought, “Maybe because it’s recorded. It might be different live”. But it wasn’t. Sure, he could tell the quality of sound was better or that this instrument was playing but he couldn’t experience any emotional response.
“Bob” suffers from musical anhedonia, as with the few 3 to 4% of the population. In his case, the right parietal lobe is said to be involved in experiencing emotions from music. A more recent study by Martinez-Molina and colleagues (2016) showed that the nucleus accumbens, a.k.a. the brain’s reward circuit may be involved.
Participants were asked to rate whether a musical excerpt was pleasurable or not. Unsurprisingly, the anhedonics rated it lesser than those who can experience emotion from music. When they were asked to listen again, fMRI revealed that the nucleus accumbens had lower activity compared to those without musical anhedonia. Interestingly, it only happens with music and not with gambling or monetary rewards.
The researchers then studied if it has something to do with the relationship of nucleus accumbens and the brain’s processing center of sound, the superior temporal gyrus. Participants with musical anhedonia showed lesser connectivity in this pathway. However, the exact reason why this pathway exists hasn’t been explained yet.
Experiencing emotion from music is so commonplace and natural that we may take it for granted. But this phenomenon is not without its purpose. Surely, there must be a reason why music has transcended culture, geographical barriers and even time.
Music is an experience we often share with others, whether for celebration, tradition or simply the enjoyment of it. It is in the moments we share the same feelings from listening to the same song that we learn how to interact with other social beings. Even when you’re listening alone, music can make you feel better and connected to our world.
More often than not, our brain functions to help us to survive and for our species to continue existing. Perhaps, music and our emotional relationship with it has its evolutionary advantage. So the next time you listen to your favorite song, think about what it makes you feel. Think about what that feeling means to you because some people don’t have that opportunity.
Share your favorite song and how it makes you feel below in the comments!
Martinez-Molina, N., Mas-Herrero, E., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Zatorre RJ, Marco-Pallares, J. (2016). Neural correlates of specific musical anhedonia. PNAS, 113(46). Doi: doi:10.1073/pnas.1611211113
Satoh, M., Nakase, T., Nagata, K., & Tomimoto, H. (2011). Musical anhedonia: Selective loss of emotional experience in listening to music. Neurocase,17(5), 410-417. doi:10.1080/13554794.2010.532139