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When we listen to music, the unexpected generates pleasure in the brain.

The unexpected chords of a song give you chills? You are not alone!

Music acts on a key mechanism in the central system reward circuit, which is very useful for learning.

When we listen to a piece of music that we know little, and suddenly comes an agreement even more pleasant than we expected, we almost feel a thrill of pleasure.
Now a new study confirms what we already knew from experience: in music, the unexpected activates the reward centers in the brain, a mechanism that facilitates the learning of the song we are listening to.

A team of scientists has subjected 20 volunteers to a musical learning task that exploits a process, neuroscientists believe to be a key component of learning, known as reward prediction error.

The neural activation resulting from an unexpected reward reinforces the stimulus that has caused that reward, thus leading us to search it over and over and learn how to obtain it.

Lucky Combination?

The volunteers had to choose a colour and a direction between a series of possibilities.
Each combination led to a consonant and pleasant, or dissonant and less pleasant to listen to agreement.
Over time, the subjects learned to understand which approaches would lead to a certain type of agreement, and then developed the expectation of a more or less pleasant stimulus. During the test, their brain was analyzed through functional magnetic resonance imaging.

This is not expect

At this point, an algorithm has calculated the gap between the expected reward and the one actually received, that is, the prediction error of the reward.
When the stimulus was more pleasant than expected, that is, it exceeded expectations, there was an activity in the area of ​​the nucleus accumbens, involved in the reward circuit.

This is the first time that this kind of “satisfaction” is linked to an impalpable stimulus like music. In the past, it was observed for much more concrete mechanisms, linking to food or money.

I want to hear you again

Volunteers in which the activity of the nucleus accumbens seemed more closely linked to the surprise effect were also those who recorded the greatest progress in learning colour combinations-directions-chords: the proof that this process could facilitate musical learning.
The same mechanism could also apply to other abstract stimuli, different from music.

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