Your taste in music can be altered by applying magnetic stimulation to your brain. Scientists from McGill University, Canada have published a study in the science journal, Nature Human Behaviour, that describes how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can actually shift a person’s taste in music. TMS is usually reserved for use as a type of brain therapy. The research is based on the simple premise that when we undertake a pleasurable activity the reward system in our brain lights up. This chain of events eventually leads to the release of dopamine, the most important neurotransmitter in the brain for processing reward.
Brain's reward system significantly affected by stimulation
Previous brain studies have revealed that the fronto-striatal circuit in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is the part of the brain most engaged when a person listens to music they find pleasurable. So this was the area of the brain that the researchers chose to target with the TMS. The hypothesis of the study was that if the researchers manipulate the part of the brain involved in the strength of the reward response to music, they could ultimately manipulate the way people responded to certain types of music.
The actual study involved lead author Robert Zatorre and his colleagues asking 17 people to listen to different pieces of music. Some of the music had been chosen by them - music that they liked to listen to - and other tracks were chosen by the scientists. While listening to the music, the volunteers were asked to rate how much the music gave them pleasure. On several occasions during these listening sessions, the scientists applied the transcranial magnetic stimulation to the brain. In some instances, this was to augment (increase) the brain's reward response and on other occasions, it was to inhibit the brain's response.
Study reveals TMS can change our music tastes
In one round of listening, the volunteers were offered the chance to use their own money to buy the songs they were listening to so they could listen to them again. Just as predicted, the results showed that when applying TMS to the brain to augment the reward response all types of music were made more pleasurable, while the inhibitory TMS produced the opposite response, that is the volunteers enjoyed the experience of listening to their favorite music much less.
During the augmented TMS procedure, the volunteers gave music they had not chosen much higher ratings and were willing to part with 10 percent more money to buy the songs they had not chosen than they were in control experiments. Inversely during the listening sessions when the brain's reward system was inhibited, volunteers chose to spend 15 percent less cash. The study’s authors wrote: “Our results show that perceived pleasure, psychophysiological measures of emotional arousal, and the monetary value assigned to music, are all significantly increased by exciting fronto-striatal pathways, whereas inhibition of this system leads to decreases in all of these variables compared with sham stimulation.”
Research could eventually lead to new treatments for addiction
There is still much more research to do on what the long-term effects of this type of brain manipulation could produce. Scientists are eager to discover the exact areas of the DLPFC that manipulate reward, as the method of TMS isn’t particularly precise just yet. The applications of this work are also unlikely to be ever put in the hands of scheming record companies rather the results could help uncover ways to treat addiction or other mental disorders.