We all know that drugs and music have a close connection. Getting high has been both muse and lubricant for countless songwriters over the centuries, and will be for as long as people keep ingesting products that will alter your reality. They are so closely intertwined that HBO made a bad TV show about them. Throw in sex and you've got the hedonist's trifecta: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But how well do we understand that connection scientifically?
A little bit better now, actually, thanks to new research coming out of McGill University.
In a study published last week in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers found that the chemical system that mediates feelings of pleasure from sex, drugs and food also affects the brain's response to music.
These findings are built on top of previous research conducted at McGill and elsewhere that measured how music affected our brains using neuroimaging, but it's the first to demonstrate that opioids produced in the brain are related to feelings of musical pleasure.
The study was conducted in Daniel Levitin's Laboratory for Music Cognition, Perception and Expertise at McGill, which shouldn't come as that big a surprise: cognitive psychologist Levitin is a giant in his field. His books The World In Six Songs and This Is Your Brain on Music are bestsellers.
What Levitin and his colleagues did was temporarily block the opioid receptors in participants' brains and then measured their responses to music. They found that without those receptors working, they took no pleasure from music they claimed to love.
According to the study's lead author, PhD candidate Adiel Mallik, 17 participants came in on two different days one week apart. On one day they were given 50 mg capsule of naltrexone (NTX), an opioid receptor-blocker that is widely prescribed for addiction treatment, and on the other they were given a placebo.
This was a double-blind study, meaning neither the tester nor the subject knew what was being administered on either day.
"On both days participants listened to the music while we recorded activity of the zygomatic (activated when smiling) and corrugator (activated when frowning) facial muscles," writes Mallik in an email to VICE. "Participants also reported their musical pleasure in real-time while they were listening to the music…. We wanted to see whether the opioid system in the brain mediates musical pleasure and emotional response (happy and sad) to music."
Neuroimaging was not used in the self-reported study.
Because food, sex and music all use the same reward system in the brain, and rely in part on endogenous opioids—that means opioids that are generated within the system—it was believed that reversing the effects of the opioids by administering NTX would affect how participants responded to their favourite songs. And they were right.
"We had participants select two of their favourite songs from their own music collection, which they found the most pleasurable. We also selected two neutral songs that they listened to as well," writes Mallik. The songs spanned genres, from the Black Keys' "Lonely Boy" to Radiohead's "Creep" to "Turn Me On" by David Guetta feat. Nicki Minaj to the overture from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
The results were what the team anticipated, but the responses they got from the participants were eye-opening. The subjects knew they should be responding a certain way emotionally to their favourite songs, but they weren't. The songs weren't really affecting them one way or the other. "We were fascinated by their high level of emotional awareness to recognize that in the words of one participant: 'I know this is my favourite song but it doesn't feel like it usually does,'" writes Mallik.
"The pattern was relatively uniform: participants when treated with naltrexone had significantly decreased musical pleasure and emotional response (happy and sad) to music compared to when treated with the placebo."
Mallik is hoping to continue studying the relationship between opioids and musical pleasure. We will be watching out for that.
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Lede image via Wikimedia.