Music is my drug

In recent times I’ve been listening to a lot of new music.

I’ve always loved music, though my tastes have changed a great deal over the years. Embarrassingly, I’ve been through an emo phase, an indie rock phase, and, yes, even a good few months where I couldn’t get enough of the oldies. (I’m not proud to admit it, but you may at one point have found me belting out Queen in my bedroom…)

Since last year, though, I’ve been more or less obsessed with electronic music. It started off with a couple of harmless dance and melodic dubstep tracks. Then I discovered the thrills of drum & bass. And then the eargasmic highs and lows of progressive house. And by the time I stumbled upon the sultry bass notes of deep house, I was well and truly lost to the world. My headphones were fused to my ears; I couldn’t have removed them if I wanted to.

OK, I’m over-dramatising as usual. But there is some truth to it. My love for music has now got to a point that it seems to fulfil some criteria for an addiction. I miss listening to music during the day, when I’m at work. I crave getting in the car or going home to my computer to put music on. A tune in my head will drive me crazy until I hear it again…and then there’s the biggest rush of relief and bliss. And I haven’t even mentioned the phenomenon of “music chills”.

This has got me wondering. Can music really be an addiction? It’s not a drug. It has no tangible chemical interaction with our bodies. It serves no obvious evolutionary purpose. So why is music so universal? Why do we derive such joy from it? Why do people declare that “music is life”?

Curious to find answers, I decided to look up what effects music can have on our bodies and our brains. And I found that people have done some pretty fascinating research.

Study #1

music and emotional arousal

Here’s one (link to article) where they got 26 people and hooked them up to a heart rate monitor, breathing monitor, temperature sensor, skin conductance sensor and a monitor of blood volume pulse. Then they got them to listen to 3-minute self-selected excerpts of music that they found intensely pleasurable, and measured their change in emotional arousal from baseline.

(To control the study, they mixed up the music excerpts and got participants to listen to excerpts that they did not find pleasurable as a neutral control.)

While they listened, the participants had to push one of four buttons to indicate how much awesomeness they were feeling, in real-time, from the music: neutral, low pleasure, high pleasure or chills.

The results are intuitive. When people were getting happy chills from music, they had an obvious physiological response. Heart rate and breathing rate went up. Skin conductance went up. Temperature dropped. And blood volume pulse, which is a measure of how much your blood vessels are constricting or tightening, went down. These measures are involuntary, controlled by our autonomic (self-governed) nervous system, and are indicators of emotional arousal.

These points could actually be spotted on a graph:

music and time course of chills

Figure 4. Time-Course of the Chills Response. Real-time physiological recordings plotted against the time-course of the chills response reveal that chills are experienced during the peak of sympathetic nervous system activity. Individuals who experienced no pleasure to the same excerpts did not show significant changes in psychophysiological responses during the epochs that chills were experienced in individuals who found the music highly pleasurable.

The authors concluded that

…the results of our study provide clear evidence for a relationship between pleasure and emotional arousal.

…at the highest end of the spectrum are intensely rewarding experiences, such as those that induce chills as a physiological response. The latter is of particular significance since such intense pleasure states are rarely caused by stimuli that have no pragmatic, instrumental, or apparent survival value. The intensity of pleasure experienced from music listening has lead some researchers to suggest that it may act upon the dopamine reward system of the brain, which is implicated in processing highly rewarding stimuli such as cocaine and amphetamines, food, and playing videogames…


Study #2

music and activity in brain regions

And that leads us on to an even more fascinating study! This one was done in 2001 in Montreal. Again, they got participants (namely McGill University students) to listen to self-selected pleasurable music. And they stuck them inside MRI machines and used Positive Electron Tomography (PET) techniques to measure, again in real-time, the amount of blood flow to different regions of the brain.

(The study control included getting them to listen to pleasure-neutral music, amplitude-matched noise, and silence.)

Human studies of rewarding stimuli suggest that stuff we find super pleasurable changes blood flow to different parts of our brains. Things like food, chocolate, sex and drugs increase activity in neural systems underlying reward/motivation, emotion and arousal. These systems largely involve structures that lie deep on the under-surfaces of the brain (more primitive areas) but have heaps of connections to the frontal parts of the brain (our more developed, higher functioning bits).

The participants listened to good music and got chills; their heart rates and breathing rates went up; and they showed changes in brain reward circuitry. Blood flow increased to areas like the left ventral striatum and dorsomedial midbrain. Blood flow decreased to areas like the right amygdalaleft hippocampus/amygdala, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Blood flow also increased to areas associated with emotion (bilateral insula, right orbitofrontal cortex), arousal (thalamas, anterior cingulate), and motor function (supplementary motor area, cerebellum).

The authors say:

The pattern of activity observed here in correlation with music-induced chills is similar to that observed in other brain imaging studies of euphoria and/or pleasant emotion.

and go on to mention cocaine administration and animal studies of pleasure, reward and motivation.

Of course, PET scanning is limited in that you can only look at blood flow to a vague area of the brain. It’s not a direct measure of recruitment of specific neural circuits. But still, the technology is pretty cool, especially in that it gives a dynamic picture of brain activity, and the results enable researchers to draw some broad conclusions and target future studies.

We have shown here that music recruits neural systems of reward and emotion similar to those known to respond specifically to biologically relevant stimuli, such as food and sex, and those that are artificially activated by drugs of abuse. This is quite remarkable, because music is neither strictly necessary for biological survival or reproduction, nor is it a pharmacological substance. Activation of these brain systems in response to a stimulus as abstract as music may represent an emergent property of the complexity of human cognition.

So, I still don’t know why humans like music. But I’ve now learnt that listening to a mindblowing song not only makes my heart beat faster and my lungs work harder, it also makes different parts of my brain light up like I’m eating the best chocolate in the world. I guess it’s biological. I can’t fight it. I have no hope but to give in to this spiral of addiction…

Happy listening :)


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