Prediction learning is considered a ubiquitous feature of biological systems that underlies perception, action, and reward. For cultural artifacts such as music, isolating the genesis of reward from prediction is challenging, since predictions are acquired implicitly throughout life. Here, we examined the trajectory of listeners’ preferences for melodies in a novel musical system, where predictions were systematically manipulated. Across seven studies (n = 842 total) in two cultures, preferences scaled with predictions: participants preferred melodies that were presented more during exposure (global predictions) and that followed schematic expectations (local predictions). Learning trajectories depended on music reward sensitivity. Furthermore, fMRI showed that while auditory cortical activity reflects predictions, functional connectivity between auditory and reward areas encodes preference. The results are the first to highlight the hierarchical, relatively culturally-independent process by which predictions map onto reward. Collectively, our findings propose a novel mechanism by which the human brain links predictions with reward value.

Monday 27/6 at 4pm (UK)

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