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Music Benefits Human Health, Research Shows

Music can ease the anxiety of Alzheimer’s patients, reduce pain sensitivity and more. | FrameAngel/Adobe Stock

People who have musical anhedonia, a condition that prevents them from enjoying music, also tend to struggle to derive pleasure from social interaction, according to new research presented in a Feb. 14 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Seattle.

This finding, along with other recent insights into the connection between music and the human body’s physiological processes, could help clinicians improve on health interventions that use music to ease anxiety, reduce inflammation and more.

In a 2016 study, neuroscientist Psyche Loui and colleagues found structural differences between the brains of those who consistently get chills or goosebumps when listening to music and those who do not. Using magnetic resonance imaging scans, the researchers showed that, compared to the control group, the subjects prone to experiencing chills or goosebumps had more connectivity between the areas of the brain responsible for processing auditory stimuli and the brain regions important for emotion and social reward.

“Put simply, music is really a way to use your auditory channel to get toward the social and emotion centers of your brain,” said Loui, who directs Northeastern University’s MIND (Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics) Lab, during Friday’s press briefing. “I think that’s actually particularly appropriate, considering it’s Valentine’s Day, to think that if you really love someone, you make them a playlist.”

A follow-up MRI study, led by Loui and published in 2017, confirmed the relationship between the brain’s auditory and social reward centers by showing that, in the brain of a man with musical anhedonia, those areas were less connected than in a control group.

“These are people who like good food and poetry and long walks on the beach as much as anybody else,” said Loui. “They just don’t understand why people like music.”


Compared to a control group, a man with musical anhedonia, called BW, showed less connectivity between the brain’s auditory and social reward centers. | Courtesy of Psyche Loui


The MRI results led Loui to hypothesize that the unique brain structure of people with musical anhedonia would manifest in a reduced ability to derive pleasure from social interaction. And her lab’s newest results, yet to be published, indicate just that.

In a survey of 393 people, 22 of whom have musical anhedonia, Loui’s team found that those who have the condition were much less likely than the rest of the respondents to report enjoying social experiences, such as spending time with friends and family.

Musical anhedonia is rare though, affecting approximately 3% of the population. For everybody else, music can play a significant role in health interventions.


Psyche Loui, Elizabeth Margulis and Daniel Levitin spoke at a AAAS Annual Meeting press briefing Friday. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Loui and her fellow panelists — Elizabeth Margulis, professor of music at Princeton University, and Daniel Levitin, dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools — pointed to numerous studies showing music’s success in everything from easing the anxiety of Alzheimer’s patients to reducing pain sensitivity and improving immune system function. Loui’s new work and other investigations in the field are aimed at providing insights that could improve such clinical applications.

“It’s really important to integrate music as part of clinical work,” said Loui. “In the future, can we start to ask about using music therapy as a kind of dosage?”

“Will there be a future day when you prescribe ten minutes of Mozart listening to a patient with Alzheimer’s?” she continued. “We don’t know, but I think that we’re starting to find out that relationship and what that might look like.”