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article imageOp-Ed: ‘Music as a ‘reward’ research shows the unexpected is best

By Paul Wallis     Feb 26, 2019 in Health
Montreal - Well, if you're always looking for the fabulous new piece of music, that means that your "reward" nerves are in excellent condition. It may also mean that you're bored out of your mind with filter fodder repetitive rap and techno, too, of course.
New research conducted by Ben Gold, a PhD candidate in the Robert Zatorre laboratory at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital), at McGill University shows positive results. This research proves that the reward centres of the brain respond to music in much the same way as they respond to food, and other strong positives.
Rather not-very-excitingly, the findings translate into an algorithm which can predict reward responses. You have to wonder exactly what the point of this type of research may be. Psychology and neuroscience have an incredibly bad reputation at the moment, mainly for manipulative behaviour. The image is that of the poor old mad scientist who has to rule the world, etc., a classic overcompensation saga at its very least interesting.
On the other hand, positive proof of the value of music as an essential part of life is good news. Regardless of the obvious commercial applications and massive hype likely to be associated with wonderful new "rewarding" music software and unbelievably talentless hacks pretending to be musicians, this actually is very important research.
Other research has shown some direct and dramatic physical responses to music in people with chronic conditions like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, dementia and similar issues. It is quite possible that the "reward" phenomenon is linked to these extraordinary responses. In some cases, people who were barely able to walk and hold conversations were up and dancing and talking normally simply because they were listening to music from their past. When this theory was first tested in Australia, you could hear the jaws dropping as people literally came back to life.
The theory is that music can get a response from the entire brain, reactivating synapses, memories, and other surprisingly useful ephemera nobody ever seems to use. This new research adds a new context to the overall theory – Rewards from listening to music can be used as incentives to promote improved health.
That theory, however, also leaves a bit of a problem. If positive experiences listening to music assist in promoting health and mental behaviour, what do negative experiences do? Is it possible that discordant music is actually health negative? There probably are some reasonably good, accurate metrics to be found in the new research.
Research subjects were required to learn to make choices based on a pretty straightforward series of instructions. The working definition of rewards included some rather obscure concepts, like "unexpected rewards cause pleasure", perhaps not the clearest way of defining results, but interesting.
Research subjects were also required to "expect" satisfaction or dissatisfaction, this created a series of predictions, and prediction errors. Interestingly, rewards were greater when prediction errors led to a positive musical experience based on the difference between expectations and result.
Let's just hope that this research leads to positive therapeutic benefits, rebooting music to its proper cultural status as a very important part of life. The risk is that use of terminology like "rewards" may attract the true market hacks, rather than the people who need to see this research and use it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about mmusic as a reward, Music therapy, Parkinson's disease music therapy, unexpected music rewards, Mcgill university
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