“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” ~Leo Tolstoy
Have you ever listened to a song you love and felt a deep sense of pleasure, almost exhilaration? That’s not just your sense of fun kicking in; it’s an actual chemical reaction stimulating the region of your brain that influences enjoyment.
A recent study from scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada shows that music affects the brain chemistry the same way that other activities associated with satisfaction, such as having sex and eating, do; and it elicits the exact same response. When we hear a favorite piece of music — whether it is a symphony, jazz, or even a disco song — the brain releases dopamine, which provides the sensation of pleasure.
Although the dopamine reaction holds true for everyone listening to music they love, the researchers focused on subjects who reported getting “the chills” from parts of certain favorite songs. That enabled the scientists to examine both the anticipation and appearance of particular parts of the music. They determined that the dopamine affects different circuits of the brain depending on whether you are expecting something or experiencing it.
Using PET scans, they viewed the volunteers’ brains and discovered that the neurons were pumping out more dopamine when they were hearing the pieces they favor than other more neutral songs. The scans also showed that the dopamine was traveling through circuits to the striatum (an area of the brain associated with executive decisions and rewards) when the subjects were anticipating highlights of the music and to the mesolimbic pathway (an area of the brain associated with memory and rewards) when the climax of the song was playing. MRI scans were used as well to pinpoint exactly when during the music and where in the brain these surges in dopamine delivery occurred.
The same research team had conducted an earlier study that demonstrated the ability of music to bring about intense emotional feelings, such as changes in temperature, heart rate, pulse, and breathing. They used PET scans to obtain evidence that blood flow increases to the regions of the brain connected with dopamine release.
This study helps explain why music has been beloved for so many centuries and in just about every diverse society around the world. We are literally hard-wired for its enjoyment. Many varieties of music were selected by the participants, including punk, jazz, classical, and bagpipes. Each piece, however, was instrumental only, so more research needs to be done to determine the effect vocals and lyrics might have on dopamine response.
To put it plainly, dopamine makes us feel good. It is involved our sense of motivation, as in fueling the desire to eat because food tastes good (which also satisfies our need for nourishment) and to engage in sex because it feels good (which also satisfies our need to procreate). That’s why dopamine has always been associated with basic survival requirements. It is also linked with addiction, however, because of the feelings of euphoria it creates. So yes, listening to music can be addictive, as you might have guessed when seeing teenagers walk about plugged into their Ipods, oblivious to the world outside.
Many drugs work by flooding the brain’s circuitry with dopamine, resulting in a happy “high.” But as you continue to use drugs, the brain adapts to the surges in dopamine by reducing the number of available receptors. The dopamine impact drops off and the drugs — as well as other activities that increase dopamine production — don’t create as much pleasure. At that point, you need to increase the amount of drugs you take to receive the same euphoric feeling, and the cycle of addiction continues and eventually grows worse and worse.
Dopamine also has a connection to “risk-taking” personalities, which makes these people more prone to activities such as drinking, gambling, and driving way too fast. They like excitement and sometimes a little danger in their lives. But maybe this research can lead to natural alternatives that more safely get that dopamine fix than self-destructive or risk-taking actions. Better to have crowded concert halls than rehab facilities!