Music makes us feel good

Music makes us feel good. No news flash there. However those scientists just love to identify, quantify, qualify and verify then let’s not leave out codify all that research into some high-falutin’ academic paper. McGill University in Montréal, Canada took it upon themselves to examine what happens in our head when we’re groovin’ to the beat as per the article "Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music" in the on-line magazine Nature Neuroscience dated January 9, 2011:
Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of Craclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. [chuckles] Actually, I had to re-read several sections of the paper to assure myself that I was reading English. Striatal dopaminergic system? Neurochemical specificity of Craclopride positron emission tomography scanning? Endogenous dopamine release? Wow, that’s a wealth of multisyllabic jewels from the thesaurus just to say something as simple as, "I dig it!"

The researchers discovered that dopamine plays a part in our enjoyment of music. I’ll try my hand at explaining that one: dopamine is a neurotransmitter or a chemical which transmits signals from one neuron to another across a synapse or junction between cells. It is one of many neurotransmitters in the brain but it specifically plays an important role in pleasure. Certain activities give us pleasure, like sex, food and even drugs and dopamine plays a critical part in how we experience pleasure.

Whew! Am I close? Trying to explain scientifically what we all know from experience ain’t easy if we’re going from "I dig it" to 5 or 6 syllable words. Nevertheless, these McGill researchers are managing to clearly see how our brains work when we respond to music and shed some light on how music also affects our pleasure centres by releasing dopamine in our brains.

For the study, the researchers selected people who claimed to get chills listening to music, a sign of intense nervous system arousal. These people volunteered to submit to brain scans. According to the scientists, the music had to be instrumental as they wanted to ensure any reaction came from the music itself, not an emotional response to lyrics.

A wide range of music was chosen by the people from techno to folk to classical and surprisingly enough, even bagpipes. As the volunteers merrily took in their fav ravs, positron emission tomography (PET) revealed where dopamine was being released in the brain. For this part of the test, a short-lived and harmless radioactive molecule which apparently latches onto dopamine was injected into the subjects so the PET could track the neurotransmitter in the body.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also done to show which parts of the brain were stimulated when the pleasure associated with the music was experienced. The volunteers also listened to music to which they were not partial so as to give the scientists comparisons between music which was pleasurable and music which was ho-hum.

One interesting aspect of what music was pleasurable was that it varied from subject to subject. It didn’t matter if it was punk, classical, tango or bagpipes; the release of dopamine was dependent on the listeners’ tastes and preferences. The scans also showed that the release of dopamine changed according to the sections of the music. In other words, the highs and lows of the music, the crescendos and the denouements created moments of more intense and less intense pleasure.

Dopamine and Addiction
The following video talks about dopamine and its relation to pleasure. As a neurotransmitter, this chemical is involved in many aspects of the functioning of our brains including movement. The author notes that when dopamine cells die, you cannot initiate movement and that’s Parkinson’s disease.

Drugs stimulate the system and cause abnormal amounts of dopamine to be produced which leads to heightened pleasure. That pleasure in some of us takes over our thought processes so that we become obsessed with the pleasure, obsessed with the drug that causes it. Not everyone becomes an addict but those that do no longer can control their ability to decide when they take or they don’t take the drug. This is fundamentally a stage where that individual has lost control and has an intense drive to compulsively take the drug.

The Unyielding Power of Dopamine – November 6, 2009
Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Your Brain on Drugs: Dopamine and Addiction
by David Hirschman – September 13, 2010

Dopamine and Pornography
I thought to throw this in here as a reference to dopamine and its relation to pleasure and such associated stimuli. In my article Pornography: Is it an addiction? I point out various experts on either side of the fence who discuss the possibility that viewing pornography can be an addiction based on how the brain produces dopamines when a subject sees something sexually arousing. As with food or with music seen in the study above, dopamine is produced in a variety of circumstances, not necessary indicative of addiction. In the section above on drugs, not everybody who takes drugs becomes an addict. Somehow, the presence of dopamine or the production of dopamine unto itself is not necessarily symptomatic of addiction. However, obsessive compulsive behaviours unrelated to dopamine, could play an important if not critical factor in explaining neurotic, repetitive conduct which looks like addiction.

Final Word
Music gives us pleasure. Who knew?

All joking aside, it is interesting to see how the brain is being mapped and how our understanding is increasing about how the old noodle functions. With new information about how we work, hopefully we will be in a better position to figure out how to fix us when we’re broke.

In the meantime, I’m putting in my earphones, I’m plugging in my iPod and I’m cranking that sucker up…

Music: I want to take you higher. (see below: Sly & the Family Stone)

Click HERE to read more from William Belle.

References

Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music
Valorie N Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher & Robert J Zatorre
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Written: October 7/2010
Published online: January 9/2011

Sly & The Family Stone
I Want To Take You Higher – 1969
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDjnB_61k58

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