Many people consider music to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Others find it… meh.
An aversion to music of any kind might seem on par with disliking puppies, ice cream or sunshine, but not everyone gets a kick from jamming out to the radio. In fact, the inability to derive pleasure from music can stem from a real neurological condition known as specific musical anhedonia.
People with musical anhedonia lack the typical emotional responses that most people show when listening to Beyoncé or The Beatles (or any other music, for that matter).
New research sheds light on the causes of the condition, and suggests it is rooted in differences in how the brain’s auditory processing and reward centers are connected. The brains of people with musical anhedonia show less-than-average connectivity between these two areas, according to a study published in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Due to the lack of interaction between these two parts of the brain, a person with musical anhedonia can listen to an extremely emotionally charged song and not feel anything at all ― even if they show completely normal emotional responses in every other way.
“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.”
Zatorre and his colleagues discovered the phenomenon just a few years ago. They first identified musical anhedonia in a 2014 study, showing that some people can’t derive pleasure from music despite having a normal ability to enjoy other pleasurable things.
And it wasn’t just a matter of personal preference. Researchers identified a basic physiological difference between people with musical anhedonia and people who enjoyed listening to songs.
The other participants reported chills when listening to music. With our anhedonic group, they had no chills. They had no real response to music.
Dr. Josep Marco-Pallares
“The other participants reported chills when listening to music,” study co-author Dr. Josep Marco-Pallares of the University of Barcelona told NPR in 2014. “With our anhedonic group, they had no chills. They had no real response to music.”
The next step for the research team was to determine what caused this inability to find pleasure in music. For the new study, 45 healthy participants answered questions about their level of sensitivity to music, and were divided into three groups based on their responses. (If you’re curious, you can test your own musical responsiveness using this quiz from the University of Barcelona team.)
Then, the participants’ brains were scanned while they listened to music and recorded their pleasure levels in real time. To make sure that the brain’s reward response was unique to music ― and not simply dampened overall ― the participants also had their brains scanned while they played a game in which they could win or lose real money.
The brain scans revealed that musical anhedonics showed less activity in the nucleus accumbens, a key structure in the brain’s reward network, when listening to music. But their reward areas were normally activated when they won money.
In the musical anhedonics, the nucleus accumbens also seemed to be disconnected from brain regions involved in auditory processing. People with a high sensitivity to music, on the other hand, showed a high level of connectivity between these two parts of the brain. The more the participants enjoyed music, the more connected were their brain’s pleasure and music-processing circuits.
Although musical anhedonia is very real, Zatorre notes that the condition shouldn’t be pathologized or seen as some sort of mental illness.
“I try to be careful not to call it a disorder,” he 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.’”
Anhedoniacs, you’re not alone.