Because I’m Happpppy – But why do our favourite tunes make us smile?

‘I will wait’ by Mumford and Sons. Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’, or perhaps ‘Can’t stand me now’ by the Libertines. Songs the crowd will be jumping to this weekend, but why do we turn the volume up for some songs and tune out to others? And what gives a performer the ‘rush’ they experience when taking to the stage in front of 50,000 people?

The brain reward system activated by a pleasant stimuli
The brain reward system activated by a pleasant stimuli

The human brain is an amazing organ. More powerful and smarter than any computer, it controls what we do and when we do it. The brain’s reward system allows us to feel joy in everyday activities. When you take a bite of that delicious burger, score the winning goal or see your favourite band live, parts of your brain become active and release pleasure inducing chemicals – and this makes us happy. Unfortunately, not everyone finds pleasure in these kinds of activities.

Over 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, but we still don’t know the causes. One of the most common symptoms is lethargy and feeling a lack of pleasure when depressed. At Reading we are conducting cutting-edge work which aims to see how depression affects our brain reward system. The results might help us to plan prevention programmes and identify young people who are at risk of depression. We can also use the brain’s reward response to think about how anti-depressants might or might not be working for some people.

Brain activation in healthy people (white) and those with depression (grey)

But this week I’m going to show you how the brain reward system works – using music as the spark. Many studies have looked at the effects of music on the reward system. They found very similar regions in the reward centres, such as the ventral striatum, are activated in response to pleasant vs. unpleasant music (Zattore 2015), and this result was related to how much the person enjoyed the music experience.

I’ll be at the Festival on Friday to explain more about our research and brain reward. Our on-site team of students will be quizzing festival-goers on their favourite music, and revealing how brain reward works with some striking neuro numbers. They’ll also be getting reaction from the bands backstage, explaining the buzz they felt when the lights came on and the cheers went through the roof.

Happy Reading Festival all.

Originally published on the Reading Backstage Pass Blog

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