This post is written by Benjamin P. Gold and Elvira Brattico. Gold is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at McGill University who holds a Master’s from Aalto University and has worked as a research assistant at the University of Helsinki. Brattico holds a PhD in psychology and serves as an adjunct professor and research fellow at both the University of Helsinki and Aalto University. It addresses the question, “Can music help you learn?”
Learning is a complex behavior that incorporates several cognitive processes and environmental factors with individual genetic predispositions. Though many functions and biological substrates are involved, the neurotransmitter dopamine seems to be central to learning. Indeed, a wealth of evidence indicates that, of thousands of protein-coding genes, those that regulate dopamine neurotransmission are most strongly associated with the neural components of learning as well as the environmental factors that influence them, such as cognitive training, motivation, and reinforcement (Soderqvist et al., 2012; Frank et al., 2007).
One type of learning particularly sensitive to dopamine transmission is “reinforcement learning.” In this framework, reinforcement is any event that increases a behavior, and thus “reinforcement learning” is the process of adapting behaviors to reinforcers (Sutton & Barto, 1998). Teachers often use this method, either with positive reinforcers like praise or tokens or with negative reinforcers such as reductions in homework or other unpleasant tasks, to encourage particular behaviors (Reeve, 2009). Even practicing math problems or vocabulary lists, for example, involves reinforcement learning wherein the pride of being correct is the reinforcer.
This process starts in the basal ganglia, an evolutionarily ancient region deep within the brain, where reinforcers elicit temporary bursts of dopamine (Schultz, 2002). According to a prominent theory of reinforcement learning, this dopamine burst initiates a chain of neural firing that increases the likelihood of the behavior that resulted in reinforcement: in other words, when we receive reinforcement, we’re more likely to repeat the behavior that led to it (Frank et al., 2004). The opposite is true of punishments, which elicit dips in dopamine activity that make us less likely to repeat the punished behavior. These bursts and dips can thus be thought of as dopaminergic “teaching signals” that distinguish more rewarding actions from less or non-rewarding ones (Frank et al., 2004).
Dopamine is not just for learning, though: it responds to a wide range of “rewards,” reinforcing and not. Drugs of abuse, for example, become addictive by hijacking many of the same pathways involved in reinforcement learning (Robinson & Berridge, 1993). However, not all of these alternative rewards are so sinister: one of the most rewarding and common human experiences, with little to no adverse side effects and a strong relationship to dopamine transmission, is that of listening to pleasurable music (Salimpoor & Zatorre, 2013). Indeed, listening to pleasurable music induces activity along the same dopaminergic pathways as those implicated in reinforcement learning (Salimpoor et al., 2011; 2013).
Given this overlap, we sought to investigate whether dopamine neurotransmission elicited by pleasurable music could facilitate learning processes (Gold et al., 2013). To do this, we put together a database of 14 instrumental excerpts from film scores and asked 73 participants to identify the most pleasurable and neutral songs, in their opinions, on the list. Once we identified one pleasurable and one neutral song for each person, we played this music while the participant performed a reinforcement learning task. Finally, we asked about the subjects’ musical backgrounds and typical listening behaviors to get a better idea of how the music might affect them.
We found that pleasurable music generally facilitated reinforcement learning, but in ways that varied greatly according to different individual factors. Most significantly, non-musicians tended to learn better when they enjoyed the background music, but those with more musical training learned better when the music was neutral. This was driven by the way people used music: those who listened for more emotional reasons were usually non-musicians and learned better with pleasurable music, while those who listened for more cognitive/analytic reasons were often musicians and learned better with neutral music. We also found that these trends reversed when we tested the subjects on how much they’d learned. This test was a much less cognitive task than learning, relying mostly on instinctive reactions, and so musicians/analytic listeners tended to perform better when listening to pleasurable music, and non-musicians/emotional listeners performed better when listening to neutral music.
Altogether, these results underline the highly subjective nature of learning, while also suggesting that pleasurable background music can facilitate reinforcement learning in emotional listeners. It also seems that this relationship was mediated by dopamine neurotransmission, implying that various genetic, neural, and environmental factors interacted with different music listening strategies to enhance learning in some listeners but not others. Although we need to know more about how and why these factors influence each other first, research like this could ultimately lead to personalized teaching strategies that use music and/or other tools to optimize education for individual learners.
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Frank, M. J., Moustafa, A. A., Haughey, H., Curran, T., and Hutchison, K. (2007). Genetic triple dissociation reveals multiple roles for dopamine in reinforcement learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 104, 16311-16316.
Gold, B. P., Frank, M. J., Bogert, B., and Brattico, E. (2013). Pleasurable music affects reinforcement learning according to the listener. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 541.
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Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257-262.
Salimpoor, V. N., van den Bosch, I. Kovacevic, N., McIntosh, A. R., Dagher, A., and Zatorre, R. J. (2013). Interactions between nucleus accumbens and auditory cortices predict music reward value. Science, 340, 216-219.
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Soderqvist, S., Bergman Nutley, S., Peyrard-Janvid, M., Matsson, H., Humphreys, K., Kere, J., & Klingberg, T. (2012). Dopamine, working memory, and training induced plasticity: Implications for developmental research. Developmental Psychology, 48, 836-843.
Sutton, R. S., and Barto, A. G. (1998). Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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