According to researchers at McGill University, the same brain chemical system that regulates pleasurable feelings that accompany sex, recreational drugs, and even food is the very same system which generates pleasure from music.
“This is the first demonstration that the brain’s own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure,” explains cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin. The senior study author also notes that while his lab had previously been able use neuroimaging to map brain areas which are active during moments of musical pleasure, they had not been able to confirm it was the same process as pleasure derived from opioids. This study, then, helps to solidify the theory.
For this new study, then, Levitin’s McGill University team selectively and temporarily blocked opioids in the brain using the chemical naltrexone. This is a drug that is widely prescribed for the treatment of addiction disorders. The researchers administered this drug and then measured how each study participant responded to music to find that when on the drug, even their favorite song(s) did not elicit the same pleasurable feelings as they would have without the drug.
Levitin goes on to say, “The findings, themselves, were what we hypothesized.But the anecdotes — the impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment — were fascinating. One said: ‘I know this is my favorite song but it doesn’t feel like it usually does.’ Another: ‘It sounds pretty, but it’s not doing anything for me.'”
In addition, Levitin adds that the study has proven to be “the most involved, difficult and Sisyphean task our lab has undertaken in 20 years of research. Anytime you give prescription drugs to college students who don’t need them for health reasons, you have to be very careful to ensure against any possible ill effects.”
Finally, the cognitive psychologist notes, “The findings, themselves, were what we hypothesized. But the anecdotes — the impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment — were fascinating. One said: ‘I know this is my favorite song but it doesn’t feel like it usually does.’ Another: ‘It sounds pretty, but it’s not doing anything for me.’ ”
The results of this study have been published in the Feb 8 edition of the journal Scientific Reports.