In the movie “Almost Famous,” Penny Lane famously says, “I always tell the girls: Never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt; if you never get hurt, you always have fun; and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” Turns out, she was on to something. A new study says music affects the brain in a similar way to sex and drugs—it gets your brain high.
Drugs, sex and music activate the same pleasure centers in the brain, which are powered by its opioid system. The study, published in Scientific Reports Journal, discovered that a pill which blocks a drug high also blocks music enjoyment, indicating the two are closely related. When people take opioid drugs like heroine and morphine, the brain releases a large amount of dopamine, aka the happy hormone. Music releases dopamine as well, albeit on a less intense scale.
Participants took the drug naltrexone, which prevents the brain’s pleasure-making opioid system from working properly. (The drug is typically given to people who are addicted to heroin and alcohol.) When participants on naltrexone listened to their favorite songs, they didn’t experience the same sense of pleasure they normally would. And when listening to songs they were not fond of, they were apathetic.
“The opioid system is this big question mark,” the study’s senior author and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin said. “We know from animal studies that the same areas of the brain affected by opioids are affected by food and sex. … We didn’t know much about music because animals don’t enjoy music.”
Sure, there have been studies on music and the brain’s connection before; however, the difference between those studies and this one is that participants brought in music they found pleasurable, as music taste is highly subjective. Some of the participants’ selections included “Turn Me On” by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, “Creep” by Radiohead,” “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and “Overture: The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart.
The study findings proved to be pretty remarkable. “This is the first demonstration that the brain’s own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure,” Levitin said. We’ve all felt that emotional response to a song that’s meaningful to us, whether it’s an upbeat pop tune or a depressing ballad.
In fact, the study found participants had strong reactions to sad music. “A lot of people find great pleasure in sad songs,” Levitin continued. “When we hear sad songs, the brain releases the neurochemical prolactin, the same comforting chemical that a mother releases when nursing a child. We find it in both mother and child [during breastfeeding]. When we’re feeling sad and misunderstood, that chemical is released to show us we’re not alone.”
So when you hear NYSNC sing, “Do you ever wonder why, this music gets you high? It takes you on a ride, feel it when your body starts to rock,” now you know: Music uses the same reward pathways as food, drugs and sexual pleasure, which is pretty amazing.