Ep. 170 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, where we explore the ways music makes our lives better. If you love music and those of you who are listening to this podcast, the odds are high that you fit that description. You’ve probably heard music referred to as the universal language, and you probably heard people say that everybody loves music. Well, there actually is an exception to this rule. There are people who derive zero pleasure from music. Music just doesn’t really do anything for them. They are either completely neutral about music or they may even actively dislike music. This population experiences what is called musical anhedonia. We are much more familiar with words describing the opposite of anhedonia. Words like hedonism and hedonist that describe the pursuit of pleasure. Joining us today to help us unravel yet another way that our brains perceive and respond to music is psychology and neuroscience researcher Dr. Psyche Loui. Dr. Loui is a musician, Associate Professor of Creativity and Creative Practice at Northeastern University and Director of the MIND Lab. MIND is an acronym that stands for Music Imaging and Neural Dynamics Laboratory. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Psyche!

Psyche Loui: [00:01:27] Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:29] Well, I don’t know if I had heard of musical anhedonia until I read Nina Kraus’s book, “Of Sound Mind,” a couple of years ago. My understanding is that anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure from any experience, but that some people specifically do not find music pleasurable. They find joy in other typically enjoyable experiences like food, and also including other art forms like visual art, possibly, and non-musical sounds like laughter. And when that’s the case, we refer to this situation as musical anhedonia. Am I correct and accurate in that? And what else should we understand about the difference between anhedonia and musical anhedonia?

Psyche Loui: [00:02:18] Yes. So anhedonia is really in general a lack of pleasure, not only in music but in general hedonic activities. Right. Or that other people.

Mindy Peterson: [00:02:30] Would find really enjoyable.

Psyche Loui: [00:02:32] Right. So most people would find some kinds of foods to be enjoyable. Most people would find, for example, a long walk on the beach to be enjoyable. Most people find socializing with friends and family to be enjoyable. Most people also find music to be enjoyable, and this is something that we’ve seen in every culture from a very young age and all the way through life. So but people with general anhedonia, this might be a symptom of depression or it might be a symptom of grief. Right? So sometimes that’s that’s not very specific to specific musical anhedonia, which is what we’re talking about. And so people with specific musical anhedonia don’t enjoy music, but we’re also seeing that they don’t enjoy sounds don’t derive the same pleasure from environmental sounds, whereas their hedonic responses for everything else might be spared and quite normal.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:35] Okay, so musical hedonia anhedonia people do not derive pleasure from other sounds like, say, an audience clapping or waves on a beach or a rippling brook, things like that. Because I was under the impression that they did, just not with music. So tease that out a little bit for us, right?

Psyche Loui: [00:03:56] So in the first case of specific musical anhedonia that we saw, this gentleman, we’ll call him BW, he told me that he also didn’t enjoy the sounds of rustling waves on the shore, for example, or the sounds of rustling leaves in the trees. And these are sounds that many other folks would generally enjoy and report to be pleasurable. And so these aren’t musical sounds. At least they’re not. They’re not intended to be musical sounds, right in the way most people would generally describe them, but they do kind of differentiate between what specific musical anhedonia seems to be and just a more general anhedonia. So, so this original case, case BW had no difficulty, you know, enjoying good food or likes money as much as any. Anybody else or and likes society and likes visual arts as much as anybody else. But it’s really specific for for sounds.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:10] Okay. So that was this original case. Is that pretty constant throughout other cases? Yeah. Of musical anhedonia. Or are there some cases where they do experience pleasure from laughter or other sounds just not music. Right.

Psyche Loui: [00:05:24] So there’s also reports that people with specific musical anhedonia do enjoy pleasure from sounds. And they also do show a difference between positive and negative sounds. Right. For example, a sounds most people would prefer sounds of a baby laughing over the sounds of a baby vomiting. Right? Like, you know. And so that difference between positive and negative sounds was previously shown to be the same in people with musical anhedonia compared to matched control participants. But what we think might be going on is that if you’re looking at grown ups, right, these are adults with specific musical anhedonia and no other obvious abnormalities. Right? So they’re people like you and me who are who have grown up in a society where they’re socialized to find some things to be pleasant and other things to be not pleasant. So those associations might have built up over time such that even if they had not started out finding certain sounds to be appealing, they might be so generally associated with positive social situations that they’ve ended up finding endorsing those sounds to be positive. So. So if you look at. Right, so if you look at something that has clear associations with real world significant life situations like laughing and vomiting, right, you get the same results in musical anhedonia as you do with controls. But if you isolate that association, right, and you look at some purely generated sounds that don’t really have any kind of semantic meanings or any associations with them, then even if they’re non-musical sounds, then you start to see that musical anhedonia don’t like those sounds in general as much as controls.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:22] Okay, interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. That non-musical sounds do tend to have sort of a cultural association of positive or negative with them that we’ve kind of learned. Interesting. Well, do we know what causes musical anhedonia like is it I know you mentioned that anhedonia can be in general can be a factor of depression, but specific musical anhedonia, are there factors like genetics? Are there things like traumatic brain injury that can cause this? I know in a past episode of this podcast, we did look at the sort of the dark side of music and talked about how music is powerful and it it can be used negatively, like music has actually been used as a torture device. So can musical anhedonia be caused by certain exposures to music or other stimuli, whether it’s in childhood or beyond that?

Psyche Loui: [00:08:18] Well, it’s important to know that musical anhedonia is not the same as misophonia, right? So when these people with musical anhedonia say they don’t like music, they also don’t hate music, right? So so there’s a different population of folks call that misophonia who when they hear certain trigger sounds, they feel disgusted or they feel extremely angry. And so there are some sad cases like that, for example, of a teenager who couldn’t stand the sound of their parent’s voice, you know, and I think that’s very that’s really a sad case. And that’s an active area of research is misophonia. But when we’re talking about musical anhedonia, it’s quite a different situation where they usually say that they don’t like music. They don’t understand maybe why other people like music, but and maybe they find it slightly annoying because culturally there’s so much encouragement to enjoy music and and maybe their friends like music, but they don’t particularly hate it. So it’s not like they find the sounds to be jangly or or anger inducing or disgusting. They just really don’t care about it.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:27] Okay, so are there any common denominators or causes of this, whether it’s genetics or traumatic brain injury or something else? Yeah.

Psyche Loui: [00:09:35] So what we’re seeing is that there’s differences in structural and functional brain connectivity between the auditory system and the reward system and people with specific musical anhedonia. So there are a few different studies that have come out now that look at, on one hand, brain function when people are listening to music that they normally. Would enjoy. And most people, when you’re listening to music that you enjoy, you have this. The auditory areas of your brain become more connected to the reward centers of your brain. And this functional connectivity was disrupted in people with specific musical anhedonia. And then we’ve also gone on to look at not just functional activity and connectivity, but structural connectivity. So the white matter pathways that are between the auditory network and the reward network in the brain, and we find that also to be disrupted in people with specific musical anhedonia. So it seems to be a brain connectivity problem, not specific regions of the brain that are disrupted, but the connections connectivity between these auditory and reward networks.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:48] Okay, so there’s a reduced connectivity between two brain regions.

Psyche Loui: [00:10:54] Or two brain networks, which is a set of regions.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:57] Yeah, okay. And would you say that the two networks you mentioned the reward center. And then the second network would be sound perception. Yeah.

Psyche Loui: [00:11:07] The auditory network which is important for perceiving sounds and also for forming predictions to sounds. So not only are we reacting to sounds that we’ve just heard, but we’re also predicting actively with our brains what’s about to come up. And so we think the auditory network is doing both. And then on the other hand, the other network that it’s connected to is the reward network. And so that includes the classic reward centers such as the ventral striatum which disrupts its connectivity. Or if you remove it, let’s say in a mouse model, then the mice might not be motivated to seek out, let’s say, food or drink or other kinds of rewards that most biological creatures would find to be rewarding.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:57] Do these brain circuitry differences have any other implications besides just the perception of music? Like do these reduced connections or connectivity? Does that affect other like creativity or physical coordination or any like cause and effect, consequence, sense of consequence or anything like that? Or is it just very specific to music?

Psyche Loui: [00:12:24] I think it taps into a general system for forming predictions and learning from them. So if you think about, I mean, I think it’s such an interesting question that you raise because it more generally gets into why we have music, right? Like if you have certain brain structures that are normally important for the musical experience and those are now disrupted, what else might that affect in your life? And, you know, I think the more general question is why do we have music? How did the brain evolve to enjoy music? And what other systems might be co-opted? How is music co-opting those systems to give rise to why you find music to be enjoyable? And I think the answer is really about predictions. So something that’s very important in everyday life and has been important for eons is the ability to not only react to what’s just happened in the world, but form expectations for what’s about to come next so that you can change your behavior accordingly. Right? So if you if you see a car that’s about to come at you, you’re not going to walk into the road, right? So so it’s that kind of basic predictions that I think our brains have evolved to be very good at. And some of those predictions can come from just physical changes like the car moving down the street. But other predictions might also come from social sources, like somebody like your conversation partners eye movement or gestures, right? Or the way a roomful of people react together. So those kinds of predictions, I think, are what music really capitalizes on. Right? So if you think about musical structures that a lot of Western listeners might be familiar with, let’s say like C major, right? A piece of music starting in C major, it ends. It has to end in C major. Right. And in fact, even if you have no musical training in your life, if you’ve heard a C major piece for the first time, you would still expect it to end in C major. Sure. Right. So so.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:42] You’re like, you’re leaving me hanging here, right?

Psyche Loui: [00:14:45] Right. Or you might think it sounds wrong, or that the person who’s playing it didn’t know what they were doing or were confused. Right? Or it might just be be confusing. Yeah. So so that’s one kind of prediction that our brain has implicitly. Learned to form just by being in the culture. Now, these kinds of predictions are in music of every culture. So, for example, Chinese music has often composed in the pentatonic scale. So our brains have also evolved to form predictions for those specific pitch categories. Right. So and I think that ability of the brain to form those predictions and then have have sounds come in that are either confirming or violating those predictions. That in itself is rewarding for human brains because it helps you continuously learn and update your model of the world. And and I think that’s really important for all kinds of motivated behavior. I think that’s why people want to seek out new experiences. That’s why people maybe try out new foods. Right? So so those kinds of new experiences are intrinsically rewarding to learn from. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:16:02] I’m wondering, do you see a higher incidences of musical anhedonia with people who are experiencing fetal alcohol syndrome? Because it seems like that tends to go along with fetal alcohol syndrome is an inability to sort of predict and learn from past experiences and kind of learn that cause and effect cycle.

Psyche Loui: [00:16:22] Yeah, I think it is quite fundamentally an ability of the reward system that a lot of different diseases and disorders, including maybe not limited to fetal alcohol syndrome, might tap into. So I think depression maybe is a form of not wanting to learn new information anymore, not forming, not wanting to form predictions. It also like schizophrenia might be a case of abnormal tagging of predictions, right? So a source of these predictions might come from knowing what your body is able to do. Right. And if there’s a disconnect between knowing what your body is able to do and your own actions, then you might end up, for example, hearing voices that you actually self-generated but you think is someone else’s voice. Also, autism has been talked about as a form of abnormal predictions and prediction and reward system, right? So not being able to understand social cues from a different person, right.

Mindy Peterson: [00:17:24] How common is musical anhedonia? Like what percentage of the population experiences it.

Psyche Loui: [00:17:30] So it’s quite rare, but it also depends on how you define it. If you really use the the gold standard that’s been developed in the field, it’s always a distribution. Right. And so you end up having to draw a cutoff on the tail end of a distribution. And so the standard that the field has evolved is called the Barcelona music Reward Questionnaire. And it’s a survey. And if you score below a certain cutoff on the survey while also having normal general hedonic responses as defined using another survey called the Physical Anhedonia Scale. So the combined definition of those two scales together gives you the cutoff. And it ends up being about between 1 and 3% of the population.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:22] Okay. So that is quite small. And when you are saying population, is that the entire population or is that the population of people say without brain damage, without brain injuries, that sort of thing, you know, were their brains just developed this way for some other reason?

Psyche Loui: [00:18:41] So these would be people who start out with no obvious brain damage, right? So there’s also other folks that have self-identified as having acquired musical anhedonia as opposed to more congenital musical anhedonia. Acquired musical anhedonia might be if something happens to you, such as a brain tumor or a brain injury, or even a life changing personal event that might have changed your your reward system in some way, that could lead to changes in hedonic responses to music. I’ve seen one one case who said that they had an amount of grief because of a personal event. Their mother passed away, and then they received transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS treatment for grief, even though normally you would apply that for depression. And after receiving that brain stimulation, they stopped feeling pleasure for music.

Mindy Peterson: [00:19:45] Oh wow. The brain is such a complex thing, isn’t it? Wow. Well, this podcast is called Enhance Life with Music. Can people with music musical anhedonia still? Benefit from music in any way, even if they can’t enjoy what they’re hearing, can their lives still be enhanced with music?

Psyche Loui: [00:20:07] I would say that they would probably have evolved other ways of enhancing life. I mean, in general, these are people who are not depressed, right? So. So, for example, a lot of specific musical anhedonia might enjoy art galleries, right? Or a walk in the woods or talking with, with friends or, you know, visual art or photography. I think those are other sources of joy that person with specific musical anhedonia would derive. But because it is really about a lack of felt emotion. So there’s a distinction between perceived and felt emotion. Felt emotion is whether you’re actually moved by the music yourself as opposed to you could still perceive musical emotion without actually feeling it yourself, right? So and so we’re talking about a lack of felt emotion here. So I would say that you probably wouldn’t seek out music and it’s otherwise benefits. If you have specific musical anhedonia.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:12] Are there any interventions for musical anhedonia like I keep thinking about the comparison to taste and maybe that’s a bad comparison, but I think like if I can’t taste anything and so I lose that ability to experience pleasure from food, I would want that fixed. Like I would want that changed. And people who have experienced that temporarily because of Covid, it’s like, oh my goodness, it’s so nice when you can taste again. So are there any interventions or cures for this? And even going back to that comparison, I have read since Covid that there have been people who are training people how to taste again, and I couldn’t tell you the details of it, but they they have come up with different ways of training, eating the brain and training the mouth again. So are there any kind of cures for this?

Psyche Loui: [00:22:06] There is one group that had shown that by applying brain stimulation on the frontal lobe in a way that enhances the functional connectivity between the reward system and the auditory system, you can actually upregulate the hedonic response to music. So it’s almost like doping, like doping with brain stimulation in some ways. But you could imagine a brain stimulation regime that would increase your hedonic responses to music. And that’s something that the Satori Group in McGill in Montreal has done. And there are some other groups that that are also working on this, I know, but I think it would be it should only be used if somebody wants to be sure. Right. So I mean, I think by the time that you’re interviewing grown ups and meet people with specific musical anhedonia have come all this way without really finding music to be enjoyable or particularly useful in their lives, so it remains to be determined by them whether they would find whether they would want an intervention that changes that.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:25] Sure. Well, I’m just thinking of another comparison too, and that is very different. But downhill skiing. My husband loves downhill skiing and goes every year with friends to Colorado and I. I’m just like, and it just doesn’t really interest me that much. And he kept saying, oh, you’ve never skied on a real mountain. You’ve just skied on little hills. And have you skied in Colorado? You would fall in love with it. And so one year, our family took a spring break trip to Colorado, went skiing, and as I’m on this mountain, I’m like, yeah, it’s it’s beautiful. Like, I can see why some people love it, but it doesn’t really do that much for me. Like, I can appreciate the view from sitting in our lodge and having a nice warm cup of tea and reading a book while my family goes.

Psyche Loui: [00:24:16] You the after ski? Yes.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:20] And it’s like, you know, check the box. Did it. You keep going with your friends. I’m fine. So I suppose that’s probably the way some people with musical anhedonia feel like, hey, you, do you, I’ll do me. It doesn’t bother me.

Psyche Loui: [00:24:33] Right? And from the first of these cases. Right. Going back to case BW, right. The first time I spoke with him, he was like, don’t feel bad for me. I have my photography, I enjoy podcasts. Right. And that’s also very interesting. Right. So when. Yeah. So even though he didn’t enjoy sounds but when he heard, you know, he enjoys poetry and he enjoys podcasts. And so having that additional linguistic route seems to change the hedonic relationship. You know, so it’s not like he generally doesn’t enjoy anything. Right. So to me, it doesn’t seem like, you know, he’s in need of help.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:12] Sure, sure. Well, in both of those things, poetry and podcasts where you’re listening to a voice, there’s a cadence to voices and a cadence to poetry, and you think of Martin Luther King Jr. I have a dream speech. I mean, there’s a musicality to it. And so there’s that’s really intriguing that those were things that he enjoyed.

Psyche Loui: [00:25:35] And I think he still forms associations. Right. So for example, if a song had been in a movie that he liked, then he’s more likely to say that that he doesn’t dislike that song. Right? So again, going back to the power of associations that you can form with real life.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:52] Yeah. And kind of like the olfactory sense of smell, you can develop those affiliations between a smell and an event or a feeling or something like that, that I imagine they could still develop those associations between a song and, like you said, a movie or something else. Yeah. Interesting. Well, are there any current gaps in the research or future directions in research in this area that that are sort of on the horizon, that have you excited or that you’re curious about or that you can tell us about?

Psyche Loui: [00:26:24] Well, I would love to know where developmentally this condition comes from. Right. So we know very little about children and, well, infants sensitivity to sounds as a reward. So one way to look into this is like at what age do you start to develop strong feelings for music? And then does it depend on what sounds and what music was in your environment when you grew up? Right. Does it depend on how predictable your environment was? Does it depend on whether you had the chance to get musical training right? So those are all open questions. And and I think, you know, looking into the social and cognitive developmental trajectory of musical anhedonia would be, I think, really important and a really powerful way to get at this question you raised earlier of whether it’s possible to come up with some interventions.

Mindy Peterson: [00:27:30] Well, I’ll include links in the show notes to your website, and then also the website for the Mind Lab and people who want to follow and dig in more. Read some of the research, can definitely check out all of the information that’s on those two sites. There’s one page on your mind lab that made me laugh. There is. It was the Join Us page where there’s opportunities to get involved in the lab. And there’s that picture. There’s a picture of a sign that says, you don’t have to be crazy to work here. We’ll train you. I’ll include the link in the show notes just made me smile. I was like, oh yeah, we could all stand to loosen up a little bit and not be too serious. Me for sure. But loved, loved the pictures.

Psyche Loui: [00:28:12] Thank you. Yes, yes, I feel like you can’t take yourself too seriously if you’re going to be serious about research. But if you’re serious about yourself.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:22] Love it. Well, I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Is there a song or a story that you can share with us today? In closing.

Psyche Loui: [00:28:38] Yes, I can share a piece of music that was composed by mapping my own, so my own brainwaves in different frequency bands of that to musical pitches in different frequencies. It’s my own brainwave song.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:55] Wow. So how did this song come to be?

Psyche Loui: [00:28:58] Well, I’ve always been interested in music and and brain, and one day I started to map my own brainwaves into sounds, and I found the result to be really curious and one way, a kind of strangely intimate way to to get some, get access to your innermost being, in a way. So thought of it as a kind of mirror where you can change the music and then also have that music change you. Right? So by focusing or by relaxing or by opening and closing your eyes, you can change the electrical potentials as they are being recorded on your scalp. And then that being fed back to music and that music being my own kind of biofeedback loop, I found that to be really fun to explore. And this is something that has a tradition in experimental music in 1960s the. Composer Alvin Lucier mapped his own eggs onto a massively amplified electronics and drum set. So very exciting kind of seminal work. So I’m just really doing my own little version of that.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai