Previous research shows that the vast majority of people who enjoy music show an increase in heart rate or skin conductance—where a person’s skin temporarily becomes a conductor of electricity in response to something they find stimulating. Musical anhedonics, however, show no such physiological change to music. A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took those findings a step further by studying neural responses to music.As part of the study, 45 students from the University of Barcelona (where most of the study authors are based) were asked to fill out a questionnaire that helped determine their sensitivity to musical reward. Based on their responses, they were divided into groups of three—people who don’t care for music at all, those who have some interest in music, and those who essentially live and breathe music. The researchers then had them listen to music while measuring their brain activity with an fMRI machine.
For people who enjoy music, activity in the brain’s auditory and reward regions is closely coupled and, for them, hearing a song resulted in joy and pleasure. But, in the brains of people with specific musical anhedonia, researchers found that the auditory and reward regions of the brain simply didn’t interact in response to music. As a control, to make sure that musical anhedonics responded to other stimuli, researchers also had participants play a gambling game and found that winning money activated the brain’s reward system just fine.