Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll: your brain can’t really tell the difference

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll: your brain can’t really tell the difference

MusicFebruary 06, 2020 By Brian Frederick

You know those specific things you do to feel better? Maybe it’s a glass of beer. Spontaneous sex. Eating an entire bag of Smartfood White Cheddar Popcorn. Meth.

Everyone has their go-to when they’re feeling blue. But as years of studies suggest, one common activity boosts your brain much in the same way all of those others do. Listening to music, it turns out, does all kinds of weird things to that complicated mass between your ears.

The science behind it is pretty cool. 

In one 2017 study, researchers found that while listening to music your brain releases chemicals similar to heroin — naturally occurring opiates that are far less expensive than the basement-made synthetic stuff. They found this out by simply blocking areas of the brain meant to induce positive feelings from the opiates. Naltrexone, a drug that kind of takes over the spot where the opiate is supposed to go, barricades itself in the receptor to make the person not feel the chemical’s effects. It’s used often in addiction therapies.

Of the participants who took the naltrexone, none of them reported to actually like any of the music they were listening to while on it; songs and artists they had chosen as their favorites before the study began. Most reported feeling dull and just kinda blah the entire time. Sad!

After everything wore off, however, the volunteers were asked to take a placebo and naturally reverted back to loving those same moving tracks once again. 

—“Researchers have found that while listening to music your brain releases chemicals similar to heroin.”

The results weren’t exactly unexpected, music has been loved the world-over for more than 40,000 years and jumps over cultural and racial barriers with ease. Name one person who doesn’t like music. You can’t. And if you can, unfriend them.

Music makes you release a bunch of dopamine too. Just like sex (and again, drugs). In 2011, researchers at Canada’s McGill University found that the amount of dopamine released can be pretty substantial. For this study, volunteers used were a selection of people who reportedly “get chills” while listening to certain songs (estimated to be about half of the world’s population).

As the musical selections played, the volunteers’ dopamine levels were recorded. Most levels rose by 9 percent. That’s about 3 percent more exhilaration than eating your favorite foods.

One person — the lucky bastard — experienced a staggering 21 percent increase just from listening to music, only a single percentage point shy of the dopamine rush from cocaine.

It’s also been proven to heighten pain tolerance, boost immune systems, reduce perceived effort (the “zone out”) and aid with exercise acting as an internal metronome to burn energy more efficiently.

Ongoing studies continue to shed more light on exactly how powerful the connection is between the brain and music. A few right now are even looking to see if a patient’s favorite songs can regenerate areas that have been marred by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Preliminary data suggests it aids in swallowing from those suffering most — potentially diminishing reliance on feeding tubes.

This is all wonderful news for anyone reading. One day if things go according to plan we’ll all be into the late stages of life wanting relief from the many years lived proper. Instead of a handful of pills maybe the doctor can simply put on your summer playlist from the 2010s … it seems so long ago.

Music is medicine for the brain. And the greatest understanding of what’s going on up there is yet to come.