Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have concluded that listening to your favourite music can trigger the same opioid-releasing responses in the brain as food, drugs and sex.
For some time now, scientists have been poking around in human (and other animals’) brains in hopes of figuring out how music creates its effects. Neuroimaging has been successful at mapping out the areas of the brain that light up when music is played, and researchers have long known that the brain’s pleasure centres can be activated by music. But the direct connection between music and the brain’s own opioid-releasing system had up until now remained unobserved.
The new research involved 17 participants who were given the drug naltrexone, a commonly used drug for treating addiction. Naltrexone functions to block opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord which are necessary for the release of dopamine, the pleasure- and desire-creating neurotransmitter. Essentially, taking naltrexone stunts one’s ability to experience and to crave pleasures like food, sex and, as the study shows, music.
Study participants were asked about their favourite music and favourite songs and then, while on naltrexone, were asked to talk about their feelings towards the music. Results were collected using both subjective and objective measures, the objective ones involving electromyograms of facial reactions (using smile and frown muscles) to the music, while the subjective ones involved participants using a sliding 100-point scale to measure their pleasure or distaste for a particular song. As expected, the responses were neither positive nor negative towards even the participants’ most favourite songs, thus showing the firm link between the body’s opioid system and music appreciation.
“The findings, themselves, were what we hypothesized,” says Daniel Levitin of the Department of Psychology at the University of McGill and lead author of the study, in a press release. “But the anecdotes — the impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment — were fascinating. One said: ‘I know this is my favourite song but it doesn’t feel like it usually does.’ Another: ‘It sounds pretty, but it’s not doing anything for me.’”
According to the researchers, their results help establish that humans are biologically constructed to appreciate music. The anthropological evidence for the universality of music is already in, since no known cultures, either in the past or present, have lacked music, and music plays a key role in important socio-cultural events, from mothers singing to their newborns to religious music to the fact that everyone’s birthday gets celebrated with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.
But the fact that the same brain-chemical system which provides for human emotion, for pleasure and desire, is also taylor made for responding to music proves that music is both universal and a biological constant running back through the history of humankind, say the researchers. “The fact that music listening triggers a well-defined neurochemical response suggests an evolutionary origin for music,” say the study’s authors.
The researchers state that further work will be necessary to clarify the nature of the opioid-dopamine response to music. The study was published in the journal Nature -Scientific Reports.