White earplugs hang from the ears of every person in my view. Surrounded by people from all sides, I heard a mixture of different songs, different artists, and different genres echo in the quiet metro. Every day, at 8:55 AM I got on the metro at La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle and 16 stops later, I got off at Ledru-Rollin, where my classes are. Even though I saw different people rushing in and out of the metro, I never failed to spot the white earphones or ear pods in people’s ears.
On the streets of Paris, people of various ages walked to the beat of their songs pumping in their ears. So why are Parisians infatuated with music?
It turns out that our brain interprets music as a pleasant and rewarding experience (Ferreri et al., 2019). In scientific terms, a well-known neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a chemical substance that is released by neurons when we experience pleasure. An experiment performed by Ferreri et al., 2019 studied the role of dopamine on feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music. They did that by having volunteer participants receive orally either a chemical that enhances dopamine, prevents dopamine, or does not affect dopamine in their brains while they listen to music. The results show that the participants who take the dopamine enhancer have increased feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music, while the opposite effects are seen for individuals who take the dopamine inhibitor. So, people like Parisians who listen to music experience a rush of pleasure. A simple analogy is that an individual’s brain reacts similarly when listening to music as it does if that individual takes potent drugs, such as cocaine.
The one thing that is constantly surrounding us anywhere in the world is music, whether we are at a supermarket, a café, or a mall. We are constantly being stimulated by music as it is becoming an integral part of every culture. Not only does it touch our mood and emotions, but also it influences our thoughts. Have you ever listened to a song and started to think about all your future life decisions? Of a memory with your friends? Of the challenges you have been through?
Well, researchers show that stronger emotions are experienced when we involve our personal memories while listening to music whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant (Maksimainen et al., 2018). When we enjoy a song, our memories of certain events heighten our emotional response. This is why when we listen to our favorite song, we start remembering things that happened to us and we feel like we are experiencing these emotions again. But wait, there’s more…music affects parts of the brain that are involved in processing information that go beyond our emotions. One study examines a circuit of 3 main networks in the brain of preterm compared to full term newborns (Lordier et al., 2019). The findings revealed that preterm infants who are introduced to music in the intensive care unit at the hospital have significantly more connections in the orange and blue networks compared to preterm infants who were not exposed to music. The brain regions involved in the orange network are the superior frontal gyrus, the auditory cortex, and the sensorimotor area, which are involved in cognitive control, auditory processing and motor control, respectively. The brain regions involved in the blue network are the thalamus, precuneus, and parahippocampal gyrus, which are involved in processing information from our senses, recall of memories and encoding and retrieval of memories, respectively. The important take away is that preterm infants who are exposed to music have brain networks that develop more similarly to full term newborns. This means that music plays a role in enhancing our brain networks, which indirectly affects higher cognitive functions.
Now, as I stand in the metro unlike my first day in Paris, I am the one with the white earphones hanging from my ears. As I listen to country and pop songs, I enjoy every moment of my metro ride instead of counting the minutes till I reach my destination. I am relaxed, experiencing my own rush of pleasure. Each song evokes in me a different memory, a different feeling than the last. Listening to Ray Charles, Georgia on my mind, I reminisce about my experiences in Atlanta. Music, a part of our daily lives that we often disregard, actually has a strong influence on our brain network and emotional experiences.