(ANTIMEDIA) Music is a human tradition passed on from days predating recorded history. It is a universal language that has found a way to transcend communication of emotion beyond spoken words. It is found in all sectors of society, from religious ceremonies to raves.
The emotional impact music has on the human mind is well known. We can affirm this through common experience. Yet, the question has remained: how?
Very little has been understood about the biochemical interaction music has with the human brain. It is known that music, like other experiences of pleasure, such as intoxication and sex, stimulates opioid receptors in the brain, causing the listener to undergo a chemically induced state of joy or satisfaction. But to what degree do these chemical reactions influence our enjoyment and delight?
A study conducted by researchers at McGill University in Canada has supplied evidence suggesting these chemical reactions are vital to enjoying even our favorite tunes.
Using naltrexone (NTX), a chemical agent designed to block opioid receptors, researchers were able to study the psychophysiological and behavioral reactions of patients listening to a combination of music. They listened both to “neutral music” selected by the team — which was neither meant to inspire positive or negative emotions — and to their favorite songs under both placebo and interaction with naltrexone.
Patients under NTX who listened to songs that had a lasting or noticeably strong emotional impact on them as individuals found themselves lacking enjoyment for songs they would otherwise gladly put on repeat. The simple act of the NTX blocking receptors and inhibiting stimulation from endogenous opiates took most of the pleasure out of listening to music. Interestingly, though, the inhibitor also seemed to have a similar reaction with negative or neutral reactions to music. Patients were noticeably unresponsive to songs chosen to incite negative emotions, like sadness. Rather than simply removing the pleasure from the experience, a lack of endogenous opioids removes a realm of experience altogether.
Where it gets particularly interesting is McGill University neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin’s suggestion that music may be linked to our evolution as a species.
“Here, we’ve provided evidence for the NTX-induced anhedonia hypothesis, and thus evidence that musical pleasure is mediated by the brain’s endogenous opioid system. The fact that music listening triggers a well-defined neurochemical response suggests an evolutionary origin for music, although one must be cautious and not over-interpret these results; it is also possible that music has developed to exploit an already existing reward system that evolved for other purposes, such as recognizing and responding appropriately to various human and animal vocalizations.”
The magic of music is quite incredible. Beyond offering simple enjoyment, music has been found to enhance cognitive function, acting as a form of therapy for subjects suffering from Alzheimer’s and other diseases that result in degrading cognition.
In a similar circumstance, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart tells a story of his grandmother, who slipped into the grips of dementia. After not speaking a word in over a year — and on the verge of entering hospice care — Mickey grabbed a drum and began to play for her. A tear came to her eye as she began to sob and say “Mickey” repeatedly. The simple playing of a drum triggered memories in his grandmother’s brain, restoring her ability to speak and recognize her grandson. This resulted in Mickey teaming up with researchers to explore the healing properties of rhythm.
Whether one is listening to Chopin or mumble rap, the subjective yet universal experience of music and its arguably magical effect on us is only being grazed by modern science. Here’s to years of new incredible discoveries.