Some People’s Brains Are Wired to Not Enjoy Music

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Everyone loves music, right? Well, not exactly everyone. As peculiar as this may sound, some people are neurologically wired to not enjoy music.

The inability to get pleasure from jamming out to some classic Beatles hits or Beyoncé, for example, is a condition known as specific musical anhedonia.

New research suggests this phenomena has to do with how the brain’s auditory processing and reward centers are connected. People with specific musical anhedonia show less than average connectivity between the two regions of the brain associated with those functions, accord to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People with musical anhedonia may feel no emotional response when listening to music. Courtesy: Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

In other words, a person with specific musical anhedonia may have normal emotional responses in everyday life, but can listen to an emotionally charged song and feel nothing at all.

“People with musical anhedonia will say, ‘No, music doesn’t provoke emotions,’ and ‘No, I never really want to dance when I hear music,’” Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at McGill University and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post. “We found some of these individuals, there’s not very many of them but they do exist…They’re just indifferent to the music.”

Related: The Song That Reduces Stress by 65 Percent

This condition was first discovered a few years ago by Zatorre and his colleagues. In a 2014 study, they found that some people can’t derive pleasure from music, even though they have the normal ability to enjoy other things.

But it wasn’t until this most recent study that researchers began to understand exactly why this happens in some people. The new study surveyed 45 healthy participants who answered questions based on their level of sensitivity to music. They were then divided into three groups according to their responses.

After completing the survey, the participants’ brains were scanned while they listened to music and their pleasure levels were recorded in real time. To further make sure that the brain’s responses were unique to music, the volunteers had their brains scanned while playing a game which they could win or lose money.

Related: The Science Behind Why Music Enhances Exercise

MRI of the nucleus accumbens, highlighted in red. Courtesy: Geoff B. Hall

After reviewing the scans, the researchers discovered that in people with musical anhedonia, the nucleus accumbens — the region of the brain associated with cognitive processing of reward perception — seemed to disconnect from the brain regions linked to auditory processing. However, the participants who were very sensitive to music showed a high level of connectivity between those two regions of the brain. The more the participant liked the music they were listening to, the more connected their brain’s pleasure and music-processing circuits were.

Zatorre said that although this is very much a phenomena, people with specific musical anhedonia should not be stigmatized and labeled with some sort of mental illness.

“I try to be careful not to call it a disorder,” Zatorre said. “The people I’ve spoken to who have musical anhedonia actually say they’re really grateful to the research. They’ve said to me, ‘All my life I thought I was weird, but now you’ve shown me that there are other people like me.’”

Curious about your own sensitivity to music? Click here to take the survey created by the researchers to find out.

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.
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