Sunday, October 5, 2008

This is your brain on drugs... errr.... music

All of us would probably agree that the music we listen to depends on our mood or even shapes our mood. A slow song might help you mellow out or fall asleep... loud rock songs or hip-hop might motivate your workout routine at the gym. Songs evoke strong emotions and memories from our past.

But what I really wanted to know is "why does listening to your favorite song make you feel so good?" Like many people, it seems I am always finding a new favorite song, listening to it almost obsessively for awhile, and then eventually it is on to a new one. It occurred to me that this seems a lot like reward-seeking behavior or pleasure-seeking behavior such as eating your favorite food, smoking cigarettes, shopping, taking drugs, hiking to the top of a mountain, gambling, etc. You might wonder, as I did, is music making us feel good just like all these other rewarding stimuli?

Well, it turns out that neuroscientists and psychologists have recently been studying music as a model to discover the brain circuitry involved in pleasure and reward. Here are some interesting things I came across on the subject of music listening, pleasure, and the brain:

  • In humans, music increases activity in a network of brain structures involved in reward and pleasure processing including the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area (1). These brain structures are also known to be active in response to other very pleasurable stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse (2).
  • It is believed that pleasurable music activates dopamine pathways in brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, thus increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter used by neurons to signal to each other. Interestingly, cocaine exposure increases dopamine levels specifically in the nucleus accumbens of rats (3) and music too has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the rat brain within the nucleus accumbens (4,5). What does all this mean? Drugs and music (both seemingly pleasurable stimuli) induce the same neurochemical changes in the same exact brain regions, at least in rats. This is likely to be similar in the human brain.
  • Increased dopamine levels in the brain are associated with compulsive eating, falling in love, sexual pleasure, drug abuse, alcohol consumption, and many other euphoria-inducing stimuli.
What is the take home message? Well, this just might help explain why listening to music* is one of the most rewarding and pleasurable human experiences. It certainly helps me understand why I like listening to my favorite songs over and over again... it is basically a sonic addiction.

*remember music is cheaper than drugs and healthier than cigarettes. Some free music and dopamine release courtesy of SubPop records. Sorry, no hip-hop :)

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~~~~~ BIO25~~~~~~

1 comment:

david santos said...