This is Your Brain Deciding to Buy an Album


The old way of sampling that new Ghostface album.
The old way of sampling that new Ghostface album.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Whether streaming an upcoming album off All Songs Considered or listening to a preview on iTunes, we all come to that pivotal moment where we decide whether to purchase it.

What was going on my brain this week when I decided to purchase the new album from "The Knife" but passed (for now) on Ghostface Killah's "12 Reasons to Die?"

Well, according to the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, it all comes down to brain activity in the nucleus accumbens. That's the part of the brain involved with the formation of rewarding expectations. Here's what s lead investigator Dr. Valorie Salimpoor had to say about it:

"What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is an indicator that expectations were met or surpassed, and in our study we found that the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend."

The study, as you might imagine, involved scanning the brains of test subjects browsing an iTunes-like interface of purchasable music. You can check out the music samples they used right here and it's a nice mix of artists that includes the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Crystal Castles, Jonsi, Trentemøller and Cut Copy.

It's not all about the nucleus accumbens, however. It interacts with the auditory cortex, which stores information about the sounds that fill our lives. The researchers found that the more rewarding the music sample, the more cross-talk between these two regions. Plus the nucleus accumbens also chatted up parts of the brain involved in sequencing, pattern recognition and emotional/reward value to stimuli.

So, in a sense, we love the music that completes us -- that finishes our sandwiches thoughts for us and meets our emotional expectations of pattern and reward.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.