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 :)

A Mind of its Own – Cordelia Fine

Books about the brain tickle me. They fascinate me. They’re like thrillers about myself, with twists on how I trick myself and how I don’t actually think the way I think that I think. Are you confused yet?

Cordelia Fine, apart from having a name like something out of a Neil Gaiman children’s book, is cool because she lives in Melbourne, Australia. Hey, maybe we passed each other in the street. How awesome. She’s an academic psychologist who’s studied at Oxford, Cambridge and University College of London. Good grief, lady…now why did you come to Melbourne again?

Maybe for the coffee and suburban backyards :)

A Mind of Its Own is an intriguing little book about how our brains deceive us. Each chapter explains a different way in which we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re more moral, clever, rational, special and in control than our neighbours and friends. (Can you hear your own brain now? “Surely not! I can see some of my acquaintances falling prey to that flaw, but never me! I’m too sensible for that!”)

Fine tells it in an approachable, conversational style. She talks through battery after battery of psychological experiments, going as far back as the infamous Milgram obedience tests first conducted in 1961. (This disturbing test, conducted after WWII, was designed to explore if ordinary American citizens would perform horrible acts of torture when under pressure from an authority figure. The results are astonishing and have been repeated consistently in multiple subsequent experiments.)

The content is fascinating. Within the first chapter, I was informed that my brain is vain, conniving and falsely optimistic about my abilities and chances for future success. And yet, even when we are told that we delude ourselves, we still can’t help but continue in the same manner. Fine explains that we are wired this way for our own sake–otherwise, would we bother to get up in the morning? Would life be endurable? There are a subset of people who view the world more realistically, she says. These people are clinically depressed.

After getting off to such a cheery start, the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s about 200 pages, a relatively cruisey read, and Fine writes in eloquent, engaging language. She uses very little technical jargon, and I felt this was almost to her detriment–the personal anecdotes and obvious attempts to enlarge her vocabulary with awkward twists of phrasing devalued the experience somewhat in my eyes. It would have been better if she stuck to simple, straightforward, succinct language.

All in all, Fine really knows her stuff and backs it up with the evidence (ie. 30 pages of references). It’s a very accessible glimpse into the world of neuropsychology and a great read even for those who don’t have any interest in the neurosciences.

And that’s not the last we’ve heard from her. Cordelia’s second book, Delusions of Gender, came out in 2010. It sounds even more intriguing. In it, she postulates that male and female brains do not possess an innate biological difference, but that the perceived differences are shaped by society and culture. To me, that sounds near impossible. But I guess I’ll have to read the book and find out.

So, it’s been a while

Hello, world!

I’m back and ready to roll! I haven’t put up a post for almost two months now, and that last entry was really a cop-out ‘cos I just copy-pasted an image that was created by someone much more inspiring.

What kept me away for so long? Did I escape to some secluded tropical haven where I danced barefoot on scattered petals amongst pygmy natives, and dozed off each night basking in the reflexive waves of a foot massage? No, I did not (surprise). I’m not sure what exactly has distracted me for the last few weeks. First there were exams, and then there were holidays, and then I began my nine-week rotation in paediatrics, which involved getting up at 6am on Mondays and spending the rest of the week in a happy stupor. I got to know a lovely new group of fellow students, comforted wailing babies and felt all mushy about it, and met a whole spectrum of parents, from Totally Chilled to Terrifying. I’m pretty sure that paediatrics isn’t for me, but it was an interesting rotation nevertheless =)

Other than that, someone special has gone overseas for six weeks. This has left me a little mope-y and in need of lots of distractions. Fortunately, there are only 14 days until he returns. That’s 336 hours. Or 20,160 minutes. Or 1,209,600 seconds. It has been a slooooow month.

Onto business!

What I’ve been reading lately…

The Mind’s Eye – Oliver Sacks

Where I got this book: Dymocks, Collins Street, Melbourne

I discovered Oliver Sacks three years ago when I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. How could I resist such a book? It had a quirky title, and it was about neurology. The Mind’s Eye is Sacks’s latest publication, and continues in much the same format. He describes, in fascinating detail and with compassion, several of his own patients with intriguing neurological dilemmas: a concert pianist who loses her ability to read music and eventually to recognise objects; a novelist who has a stroke and loses his ability to read but not to write; a woman who becomes unable to speak; a scientist who has never seen in 3D but suddenly acquires this ability in mid-life.

A large part of the book focuses on vision, particularly stereoscopy, or 3D vision, and how we develop it. For the first time, Sacks’s also talks about his own journey: firstly, his prosopagnosia or inability to recognise faces, and then his experience of being diagnosed with eye cancer and the loss of visual faculties that followed.

The Mind’s Eye is both moving and intellectually fascinating. He explains neural mechanisms with clarity and without overcomplicating the story. His writing is consistently articulate, compassionate and stimulating. For those who are intrigued by the brain.

The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog – Bruce D. Perry

Where I got this book: The Book Depository, online.

This is an amazing book. It was recommended to me by my dear friend J. “Dong” Chae, who told me it was in fact discovered by his girlfriend, Linda. I love how good books get passed along on an irrepressible wave of…goodness.

 Bruce D. Perry is a child psychiatrist who has worked for many years with victims of trauma and abuse. In this book he tells the stories of a number of children who have changed and shaped the way he practises. Some of these stories are horrific: murder witnesses, sexual abuse victims, severely neglected children, genocide survivors. Perry tells their tales with immense insight and compassion. Not only that, he explains what happens to the brain when it is put under extreme stress and the vital importance of nurture–touch, language, care, affection–in the first few years of life. So crucial is this nurture that it can mean the difference between a humane member of society, and a psychopathic killer. I think this book would be a moving and insightful read for parents, future parents and anyone who works with children.


That’s all for today, folks! Fiction reviews to come in the next couple of posts. Enjoy your weekends, eat that extra slice of pie, dance like a madman to the radio, and tell everyone you love that you love them!