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How Deep Brain Stimulation May Change Our Musical Tastes

johnny-cash-bday

Cash in my brain

Studies about music and the brain always fascinate me… do we understand anything about the brain? Not really! What makes us like or dislike a certain type of music? Genetics? Culture? Both? Yes but this new article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience describes the strange case of a 60-year-old man who developed a sudden musical preference for Johnny Cash, following deep brain stimulation targeted in the nucleus accumbens! And you thought you had built your musical tastes through some intellectual process…

For 46 years, Mr. B. had been suffering from extremely severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), he had a mild depression, had developed a fear for illogical things, and was the type of person you see in these weird reality shows! Since no medication or therapy was working, a deep brain stimulation was performed on him with electrode implants, and the treatment worked very well! His OCD symptoms, his anxiety level decreased, but another phenomenon appeared. Although he had never been a huge music fan (he liked the Beatles and the Stones), he developed a passion for Johnny Cash:

‘From this moment on, Mr. B. kept listening simply and solely to Johnny Cash and bought all his CD’s and DVD’s. When listening to his favorite songs he walks back and forth through the room and feels like he finds himself in a movie in which he plays the hero’s part. He reports that there is a Johnny Cash song for every emotion and every situation, feeling happy or feeling sad and although Mr. B. played almost simply and solely Johnny Cash songs for the following years, the music never starts to annoy him.’

And it could not have been a coincidence, Mr. B had never paid attention to Cash’s music before, and musical tastes do not suddenly change at 60! Interestingly, when his stimulators accidentally were going out due to battery depletion, he was back listening to the Beatles and the Stones, ignoring Cash!

According to recent research, musical tastes depend on ‘individually defined cortical representations of the structure of this music, in interaction with brain systems involved in emotions and rewards’,… which is why they vary greatly from one person to another, but if a lot of factors can be considered, this case demonstrates a connection between neural stimulation and musical taste and a concrete anatomical substrate related to musical preference. It seems that the nucleus accumbens plays a ‘fundamental role in the rewarding properties of music’, as Mr B. never got tired of listening to the songs as long as this part of his brain was stimulated.

This nucleus accumbens is part of the reward system, the part of the brain which produces dopamine during good expectations and rewarding experiences. Of course, this is the same system involved with food consumption, drugs euphoria or any other rewards and recent studies have demonstrated that this nucleus ‘was activated when listeners heard their selected pleasurable music.’

So what happened in this strange case? The deep brain stimulation may have altered musical preferences but scientists are not sure how. It is possible that Cash was the first song Mr. B. heard on the radio while under stimulation, and so he associated it with pleasure… Although we are still far from knowing exactly what to do in order to make your grandpa like hip hop, we are getting closer. My question is, does my brain even have a neural network that, once stimulated, could make me enjoy Jay Z or Kanye West? May be, better let this brain part still.

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