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While screening participants for an upcoming study, psychologists at the University of Barcelona discovered that a certain number of people — about five percent — have no emotional reaction to music, despite being able to derive pleasure from food, sex, and other pleasurable stimuli.
While using responses to music to gauge emotion, researchers were surprised to find that five percent of participants did not respond to music in any way. Further testing ruled out amusia — a disorder that affects hearing musical tones — and so asked the subjects to bring in music they liked.
“The first surprise is that some of the participants had trouble bringing music from home,” Josep Marco-Pallares, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Barcelona and senior author of the study, told NPR. The subjects, he said, simply did not own music in any format.
The thirty volunteer students then listened to songs considered pleasurable by their peers, including Puccini‘s Nessun dorma and Simon & Garfunkel‘s Bridge over Troubled Water, as the researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance – considered physiological indicators of emotion.
Those who indicated no pleasure from music showed no physical response, while music lovers did, even reporting chills while listening to the selected pieces. However, a subsequent reward system test showed that non-music lovers were not completely anhedonic, only when it came to music.
The findings of the study were published on Thursday in Cell Biology. Marco-Pallares is continuing the research into what he’s dubbed “specific musical anhedonia” by employing MRI machines on test subjects, hoping to uncover what it is that makes music trigger responses in the rest of us.
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