Doing this simple activity will send your brain into ‘pleasure overload’

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Hedonism, or the philosophy that life should be spent entirely in pursuit of pleasure, sounds great in theory but rarely works out in practice.

As much as we all would love to feel good all the time, it’s very much possible to have too much of a good thing. Pizza and beer may sound like a recipe for the perfect evening for many, but after that sixth beer and fourth slice most people won’t even want to look at a beer can or pizza box for another week or so. 

Luckily pleasure comes in several forms, and varying up the ways in which one attains just a little bit of delight is always a good idea. Now, a new study has uncovered a refreshingly simple and quick way to give your mind and body a pleasurable break at any point during the day. 

Just take a few minutes out of your day and listen to one of your favorite songs. The research team at the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besançon, France says that hearing our favorite songs instantly evokes a “wave” of neural responses producing pleasurable emotions and joyful memories.

Moreover, many people will even see their hair stand on edge and feel a shiver or chill down their spine upon hearing a particularly beloved musical tune. 

That shiver, or chill, down the spine, is an important aspect of these findings, as the study’s authors used EEG brain scans to show a connection between such sensations (chills, tingles) and various regions of the mind known to facilitate reward and pleasure systems. 

In total, 18 people took part in this study (11 women and seven men). All of those participants were specifically chosen because they reported regularly feeling “chills” while listening to their favorite music.

As each person listened to 15 minutes’ worth of (divided into 90-second segments of different songs) their favorite music, a high-density EEG scan recorded their brain activity. Meanwhile, subjects were also asked to subjectively rate how much pleasure each song evoked, as well as whenever chills occurred. Across all participants, a total of 305 chills were reported, with each lasting an average of nine seconds.

“Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate “chill-producing” moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments,” says study author Thibault Chabin in a release.

Every time a person reported feeling a chill or tingle, the EEG showed an electrical activity uptick within the orbitofrontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the right temporal lobe. Those regions are associated with emotions, movement control, and hearing/music appreciation, respectively. 

It appears that all three of these neural areas work together in unison whenever one hears music to activate the mind’s reward centers, subsequently releasing dopamine (often called the “feel good hormone”.)

The research team believes that this brain chemistry, in combination with the anticipation one feels while waiting for their favorite part of a beloved song, is what causes chills while listening to music.

“Contrary to heavy neuroimaging techniques such as PET scan or fMRI, classic EEG can be transported outside of the lab into naturalistic scenarios,” Chabin explains. “What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music.”

Music is a universal part of the human experience. We all enjoy and appreciate music, to at least some extent, and many people say music (whether that be creating or simply listening) is an incredible asset in terms of self-care, improved mental health, and creative release. With all this in mind, the research team believes it’s very important to keep researching how music impacts the human mind.

“We want to measure how cerebral and physiological activities of multiple participants are coupled in natural, social musical settings,” Chabin concludes. “Musical pleasure is a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be investigated further, in order to understand why music is rewarding and unlock why music is essential in human lives.”

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.