25 August 2016 – Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Release of the brain’s natural painkillers make the first two experiences feel good. Now it seems that these opoids are also responsible for music’s myriad effects on mood, pain and well-being, giving clues to how we can harness its benefits.
Like other pleasurable experiences, there are two components to enjoying music: anticipation of hearing your favourite song, and then actually hearing it. The brain signalling chemical dopamine, which is linked to reward, is involved in both phases. But neuroscientists have wondered for decades whether there was more to it – what gives music its power to induce euphoria?
The brain’s natural opioids could be key. An experiment carried out by Daniel Levitin’s team at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed that blocking opioid signals in the brain by giving people a drug called naltrexone reduces the amount of pleasure they report getting from their favourite song. They still enjoy the anticipation of hearing the song just as much, suggesting that, although dopamine is involved, it’s when the opioids kick in that music really starts to affect our minds.
A flood of opioids would also explain music’s effect on our body. Listening to music is known to raise people’s pain thresholds, so much so that in some cases, it can be used to reduce the need for morphine-like painkillers.
Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford thinks Levitin’s results, which were presented at the Society for Music Perception and Cognition’s conference in Nashville, help confirm opioids as the mediator of music’s power. His research shows that actively engaging with the music seems to strengthen the effect – singing, dancing or drumming all raise a person’s pain threshold more significantly than just listening.
This is an effect that Tom Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and Daniel Bowling at the University of Vienna in Austria, are trying to harness. They are working with a “jymmin” machine, a special type of exercise apparatus that allows music to be paired with weight training. The sounds change as the user pushes harder, and the music’s rhythm matches that of their workout. “It makes the music really pleasurable – you have the perception that you’re being really extremely musically expressive,” says Fritz.
They have shown that after 6 minutes of using the machine, the amount of effort a person perceives they are making falls by half. Exercising with machines also seems to raise a person’s pain threshold more than a standard, music-accompanied work out, they told conference delegates.
Their experiments are further support that opioids are involved. “It’s another piece of the puzzle,” says Bowling. “You don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that music can be invigorating, intensely pleasurable or sad, but this is an exciting time for research on music’s biological foundations.”
Fritz is working on software that can provide similar “musical feedback” to users, which he says might help relieve pain for people recovering from strokes or drug addiction. Some hospitals already use music to relieve anxiety before surgery, and pain after. But Sven Bringman of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden says it could be used more. “Music is not used as much as it should be because it takes more of a nurse’s time than just giving a sedative.”
While music has yet to be fully exploited clinically, Levitin says we routinely take advantage of its effects on our brain. “Many people use music to regulate their mood throughout the day. We use music to create a soundtrack to our lives,” he says.
Music therapy for all
The beneficial effects of music aren’t just related to how we deal with pain. Some people use music to control their mood as much as they use alcohol or caffeine, says Daniel Levitin of McGill University.
“We reach for a certain kind of music when we want to get going in the morning, and a different kind of music after we’ve had a fight with somebody and we want to calm down,” he says.
Music also seems to have an impact on our immune system, affecting immune molecules such as leukocytes, cytokines and immunoglobulins.
And here’s one that we can all relate to: music can trigger memories – a feature that even seems to be preserved in some people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have found that while music-evoked memories tend to be less vivid than those triggered by other means, our recollections tend to be happy ones.