Sunday, April 21, 2013

Was Steven Pinker right after all? [Part 2]

At the end of the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker infamously characterized music as “auditory cheesecake”: a delightful dessert but, from an evolutionary perspective, no more than a by-product of language. But Pinker was probably right when he wrote: “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of...our mental faculties.” Or, to express his idea less graphically: music affects our brains at specific places, thereby stimulating the production of unique substances that have a pleasurable effect on our mood. However, rather than a by-product of evolution, music or more precisely musicality is likely to be a characteristic that survived natural selection in order to stimulate and develop our mental faculties (cf. Honing, 2011).

Pinker’s idea may actually be a very fruitful hypothesis whose significance has wrongfully gone unacknowledged because of all the criticism it elicited. After all, the purely evolutionary explanations for the origins of music largely overlook the experience of music we all share: the pleasure we derive from it, not only from the acrobatics of making it but also from the act of listening to it.

Last week Science published a study (a follow-up of Salimpoor et al., 2011) in which Canadian researchers were able to show precisely that: Music can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. They were able to show that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system, most notably the nucleus accumbens. And, more importantly, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Salimpoor, V., van den Bosch, I., Kovacevic, N., McIntosh, A., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2013). Interactions Between the Nucleus Accumbens and Auditory Cortices Predict Music Reward Value Science, 340 (6129), 216-219 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231059

ResearchBlogging.orgSalimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2011) Musical Cognition. A Science of Listening. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.


  1. We got copies of this study and supporting material. It is a well done study but the theories about dopamine may not fit more current models of brain processes.

    It's seems a decent place to start.

  2. The study confirms what we knew (or at least very strongly expected): music is rather pleasurable; dopamine is involved with pleasure; and importantly, there is not another pleasure pathway that is special for music.
    Of course this is what leads to the evolutionary conundrum. Since behaviors are motivated by pleasure, and music related behaviors are very pleasurable, they are performed a great deal and hence are expensive traits for evolution to tolerate. If they have no fitness return to the individual, selection will rapidly decrease the pleasure to reduce the behavior. The only three exits from the conundrum are: 1) music is such a new trait that selection has not had enough time to reduce the music pleasure; 2) music rides on the language traits and the music pleasure cannot be reduced without strong negative impact on language (that is, language provides more than enough benefit to continuously pay the evolutionary cost of the music for individuals); or 3) music does enhance fitness for individuals (as evolution requires it).

    Number one is not really reasonable because music is at least 40K years and evolution is not that slow. Steve Pinker and many others would follow #2, however, its difficulty is in actual articulated mechanisms; none have been suggested. By excluding group selection for #3, #3's actual options narrow greatly, but I think that is were music actually belongs. A possible argument is: If selecting for the neural structures needed for music will produce the capabilities that provide language (meaning there is not a specific neural structure for language), then, because language's fitness value may really be in cognitive enhancement (and not directly in communication), music trait selection will directly increase an individual's fitness.
    What I find most interesting about that argument is it can actually provide some cause-effect mechanisms; these mechanism possibilities generate testable hypothesis.

  3. I agree with Steven Pinker that music is an "auditory cheesecake" which makes us our life and happy but most of the time, it makes us emotional. But sometimes music makes us more relaxing.

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  4. Imagine a subtly-toned lullaby. Then imagine the invariant speech of ‘Computer’ in the original Star Trek TV series.

    That voice of ‘Computer’ is alarmingly anti-conclusive with every phrase, evoking in the normal human hearer the sense that the ‘character’ of ‘Computer’ has no awareness of the simplest dynamic parts of the real world, or, ‘at best’, is all-but-unresponsive or un-adaptive to them.

    The energy directly required to produce mono-tonic speech may well be less than that for normal, ‘musical’ speech. But, living humans are not a matter primarily of absolute, indifferent stasis, nor, even, of a defensive rationalistic self-isolation—and only a feebly ‘Vulcan’ rationalist could think they ought to be.

    Even before the human infant learns the individual word units of her mother tongue, which generally is even before she learns their meaning, she hears and often enjoys her language’s sounds as such. The man or woman who enjoys music therein returns to a primordial sense of sound.

    So, music is a liberator from an irrational admiration of the ‘rational’. This ‘rational’, includes, among many other things, the habits of quite ignorant over-analysis, micro-management, and translation-and-academic methods of learning a new language.

    Music, that most omnipresent of solids, is a prime referent to our experience of ourselves and of the world. This is because, in so far as sound is motion, music is sound made in mind of itself. And, in so far as we living creatures each are a case of ‘motion that coheres’, music is sound made in mind of each of us, of each other, and of our world.

  5. With regard to music, prosody and speech, see. e.g,