What does it mean to “like” something? I don’t mean hitting a button on Facebook—liking something is a positive subjective feeling, which can have an objective representation in your brain. Two new studies shed some light on the neural origin of enjoyment, and why it’s not always straightforward.
Your Brain Likes Food That You Don’t
One study, from researchers at the University of Turku in Finland, measured opioids in the brain after participants ate various food. Opioids are associated with pleasure—the more opioids, the more you like something. Or so it was thought. A delicious pizza released opioids, as expected. However, a nutritionally equivalent but less tasty meal described as “nutritional goo” release even more opioids.
Opioids play a role in keeping the body’s energy levels balanced. The study’s results could be an indication that your brain can be satisfied even if you don’t subjectively feel satisfied. If you’re getting the right nutrients, even from deeply unsatisfying goo, your brain still knows you don’t need to eat any more.
Your Brain Can Be Stimulated Into Liking Music
In another recent study, researchers at McGill University in Montreal explored the pleasure people get from listening to music. Previous studies found that networks in the brain called fronto-striatal circuits are activated when people listen to music they like. When the same regions were artificially stimulated using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it caused people to like the music they were currently listened to even more.
It gets a bit creepier. Not only did a brain zap change perceptions, but participants were given the opportunity to buy the music they listened to during the experiment. The people whose brains were stimulated were more likely to spend real money on the music later.
We tell ourselves we have informed, multifaceted reasons for liking music—we identify with the artist, the lyrics resonate with us, the beat makes us want to dance—but this study shows that not only can those feelings be manipulated with a bit of brain stimulation, but it can translate into decisions about how to spend our money.
It’s nothing to worry about right now, unless record companies start offering to apply magnets to our heads. The researchers also put a positive spin on it: knowing how the reward systems in the brain work will help change extreme and destructive forms of “liking,” such as addiction.
Enjoyment is All in Your Head
So your brain can be satisfied even when you don’t feel satisfied, and changes to your brain can change how you feel about something. It may seem strange, but it shows that your brain is always working behind the scenes, influencing your feelings and behaviour in the best way it knows how.