Before coming to Paris, there was one trip I knew I absolutely wanted to make: a visit Notre Dame. I spent the previous spring semester reading a few pages every night of Victor Hugo’s unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was hooked. Of course the hunchbacked madly-in-love Quasimodo didn’t exist, nor did the dashing dusky beauty Esmeralda or the creepily obsessive Frollo, but still the book stirred a deep interest in visiting the ancient cathedral. I yearned to visit the chiseled stone, to see the spires where Quasimodo was fabled to have climbed, to roam the streets that Esmeralda looked down upon from her cage in the towers. Notre Dame had a fairy tale appeal, except unlike in fantasies, this one is real, and it was waiting for me.
Unfortunately the church wasn’t on our list of scheduled sites, so I just had to go visit it on my own. After class one day, a few friends and I took the metro over to bask in the ambience of Notre Dame. It’s in the heart of Paris, situated on a small island called Île de la Cité, or ‘Island of the City,’ surrounded by the river Seine. A screenshot of Google Maps below will help draw the picture (‘A’ is Notre Dame):
Crossing the river, my jaw dropped as my eyes flew up—I could finally see the renowned towers with my very own eyes!
The building was enormous, and of course stunning. Above and around the ornate doors were statues representing biblical images in breathtaking detail.
The line to enter was extremely long, and we had plans later that evening, so we decided to take a stroll around the church instead. Just as we turned the corner, we saw a young man walk up the sidewalk with a giant instrument case. He sat on a folding stool and pulled out stringed instrument resembling a cross between a lyre and a guitar. What happened next blew me away: he began plucking his instrument, and melodious music filled with the regality and crispness of the Renaissance period flooded the street.
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I felt a wave of relief pass over me, like nothing in this world could deter my peace at that moment. All of my worries and problems seemed to melt away in the little time I stood there, listening to him play music from the past. Overhead loomed the elegant spires of Notre Dame, and the combination of church and music was unreal. I couldn’t leave without giving him some change, knowing all too well that the amount I spared can never match the amount of joy he gave.
Researching our body’s response to music, I realized why I felt so much happiness just standing there listening to the musician. A study by Salimpoor et al. focused on dopamine, a chemical sent between nerve cells in the brain that is involved with experiencing pleasure (2011). Previous research has shown that dopamine is released in a region of the brain called the mesolimbic system, which is involved in motivation and feelings of reward (Schott et al., 2008). Humans gain pleasure not only from eating food and social interaction, things necessary for survival of prehistoric mankind, but also from “abstract stimuli, such as music and art” (Salimpoor et al., 2011).
This study tried to determine the role of dopamine released during “moments of extreme pleasure,” in this case listening to music. The downside is that pleasure is hard to quantify. To overcome this issue, the researchers looked at the bodily changes accompanying pleasurable sensations, like the “chills” that people feel when listening to certain types of music. The good kind of course, not the creepy kind. To get these chills, participants in the experiment listened to music that they liked. Chills can elicit changes in heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. By studying these changes, researchers can thus use an objective phenomenon (chills) to describe a subjective experience (pleasure). Lastly, to record dopamine release, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans, a lab technique that basically images the brain using radiographic tracers.
Enough of the background stuff, let’s get into the real experiment. Participants either listened to neutral music, or music they liked. They also gave subjective responses to their chills, like the number of times they occurred and how intense they felt. Compared to those that listened to neutral music, the participants that listened to music they liked felt more pleasure, and thus had more chills. The chills were also shown by bodily changes, including an increase in heart rate and breathing rate and a drop in body temperature. The PET scans depict an increase in the amount of dopamine sent between cells in the mesolimbic system. Thus, Salimpoor’s research concludes that dopamine release is associated with the pleasurable sensation of listening to music, which causes a feeling of pleasure and chills.
Now I see why I felt those chills when I stood there at Notre Dame that day. The music caused a release of dopamine in my brain, giving me the sensation of pleasure so that I could enjoy the experience for as long as I was there. The chills are just the byproduct of that pleasure, so that I realize just how much I like the music. Hopefully I can go visit Notre Dame again one day. If I do, I hope that the musician is there again—I’m ready for some more dopamine release with the sound of his out-of-this-world music!
Salimpoor V, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre R (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14: 257-262
Schott B, Minuzzi L, Krebs R, Elmenhorst D, Lang M, Winz O, Seidenbecher C, Coenen H, Heinze H, Zilles K, Duzel E, Bauer A (2008) Mesolimbic Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Activations during Reward Anticipation Correlate with Reward-Related Ventral Striatal Dopamine Release. The Journal of Neuroscience 28: 14211-14319