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Published September 7, 2006 | public
Journal Article

Emotional responses to unpleasant music correlates with damage to the parahippocampal cortex


Music is typically a pleasurable experience. But under certain circumstances, music can also be unpleasant, for example, when a young child randomly hits piano keys. Such unpleasant musical experiences have been shown to activate a network of brain structures involved in emotion, mostly located in the medial temporal lobe: the parahippocampal gyrus, amygdala, hippocampus and temporal pole. However, the differential roles of these regions remain largely unknown. In this study, pleasant and unpleasant music was presented to 17 patients with variable excisions of the medial temporal lobe, as well as to 19 matched controls. The pleasant music corresponded to happy and sad selections taken from the classical instrumental repertoire; the unpleasant music was the dissonant arrangement of the same selections. Only patients with substantial resections of the left or right parahippocampal cortex (PHC) gave highly abnormal judgements to dissonant music; they rated dissonant music as slightly pleasant while controls found it unpleasant. This indifference to dissonance was correlated with the remaining volume in the PHC, but was unrelated to the volume of the surrounding structures. The impairment was specific: the same patients judged consonant music to be pleasant, and were able to judge music as happy or sad. Furthermore, this lack of responsiveness to unpleasantness was not due to a perceptual disorder, because all patients were able to detect intentional errors in the musical excerpts. Moreover, the impairment differed from that induced by amygdala damage alone. These findings are consistent with a two-dimensional model of defensive responses to aversive stimuli, in which the PHC and the amygdala subserve different roles.

Additional Information

© 2006 The Author. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Guarantors of Brain. Received: 21 June 2006; Revision Received: 08 August 2006; Accepted: 09 August 2006; Published: 07 September 2006. We thank the patients for their precious cooperation and Bernard Bouchard for the manipulation of the musical stimuli. The work was supported by a grant from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada to I.P., and by a postgraduate scholarship from the Canadian Fonds de la Recherche en Santé du Québec to N.G.

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