The soulful wail of Adele’s “Hello” can melt the coldest hearts — but not all of them. Some people — about 3-5 percent of the population, according to a new study — seem to be immune to music’s emotional thrall, a condition known as musical anhedonia. Turns out it’s not their hearts that are malfunctioning; it’s their brains.
Music, for most people, is a vehicle for emotion: Hearing Chance the Rapper’s gospel-inspired “Blessings,” for example, might stir up feelings of joy, while listening to Bon Iver’s “715 – CRΣΣKS” might bring that same person to tears. The reason this works, a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains, is because the auditory and emotional parts of their brains are well connected. In the seemingly heartless people with musical anhedonia, those connections are a bit loose.
“Anhedonic people do not have problems correctly perceiving and processing the information contained in a melody (such as intervals or rhythms) and present a normal pleasure response to other pleasant stimuli (such as money), but do not enjoy musical stimuli”, said Noelia Martínez-Molina, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, in a release. In other words, they hear Adele’s mournful melody, but fail to get any sort of neurological reward out of it.
The 45 people who took part in the study, carried out by a team of researchers from Barcelona and Montreal, were placed in fMRI machines and asked to rate how much pleasure they felt after listening to snippets of classic songs. Monitoring their brain activity throughout this process, the researchers discovered that when people with musical anhedonia reported feeling no pleasure from music, they tended to have less activity in a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. The walnut-shaped area, an integral part of the brain’s reward system, also helps mitigate the pleasure we get from smoking weed and gambling. The nucleus accumbens in the anhedonic folks seemed to work just fine when they did other rewarding tasks, like winning money from a bet.
Since the anhedonic participants’ hearing abilities and their reward systems checked out, the researchers concluded that something had to be wrong with the link between their brain’s pleasure centers and emotional processing. “The link between areas ensures that music is experienced as very rewarding, while stressing its importance at an evolutionary level, even when it does not seem obvious what the biological gain of this cultural production is,” says Martínez-Molina.
But anhedonics are not necessarily doomed to a lifetime of musical meh: Nothing in the study says there aren’t individual elements within a song that might move them; paying close attention to lyrics, for example, might stir a person the way moving poetry does, or becoming more attuned to the tactile sensation of a song — its vibration through headphones or a dance floor, for example — could be a very effective emotional hack. At the very least, anhedonics will be spared the exhaustion of sad holiday music — “Christmas Shoes”, anyone? — in coming weeks.