We think of music as art, as entertainment, and as a pastime. It’s personal; it’s communal. Music is one of those things that, for many of us, can ignite innumerable feelings and memories in just one song, or even one verse alone. Throughout history, music was used for medicinal purposes, and research today has demonstrated that therapeutic value.
But now, new research suggests music could even get you high.
Without even knowing the findings, think about how you can relate to this idea. When you’re feeling stressed out, motivated or unmotivated, angry, sad, happy, celebratory, etc., music may be one of your favourite tools for heightening the emotions you’re feeling, or shifting them. According to the new study, this emotional response happens because music activates a chemical reward system in the brain — the same one that makes delicious food, intense exercise, and opioid drugs feel great.
Though the brain’s reward system can cause us to feel amazing, it can also lead us down a rabbit hole of detrimental habits, like overeating, overexercising, and drug addiction. But if we can gain control over this system, we can learn to avoid such behaviors and reap the benefits of the positive aspect of the high.
The study tested how naltrexone, a drug that diminishes the effects of opioids in the brain and is therefore used primarily to treat drug and alcohol addiction, affects musical enjoyment. Conducted by researchers at McGill University, the research required 15 students to pick between two different pieces of music they loved, and that gave them chills, and bring them into the lab.
The subjects were then given either naltrexone or a placebo. After an hour, the students listened to their music of choice, along with two “neutral” songs selected by the scientists. While the music played, the students used a slider to measure their form of pleasure in relation to a specific song.
Sensors also measured electrical activity in their facial muscles. Prior to exiting the lab, the participants also took a survey regarding their reactions. After a week, the subjects were put through the same test, except the naltrexone group received placebos and vice versa.
The results revealed that participants moved their facial muscles less with naltrexone in their system, which suggests that it had reduced their emotional response to what they were hearing. This was found for both positive and negative emotions: the highs felt lower, and the lows felt higher.
The sliders implemented in the study revealed that the subjects’ pleasure lessened when listening to their favourite music as a result of the naltrexone, but this did not have an effect on their feelings about the neutral music.
The research suggests that, much like it does for exercise, food, and drugs, naltrexone seems to prompt a low response to music, which backs up the theory that the same reward system in the brain accounts for our reactions to all of them.
The study authors concluded, “The current experimental finding of reduced response from both the positive and negative valence EMGs (ZYG and COR respectively) reinforces the notion that music is complex and rarely conveys a single emotional valence. Listeners more often report finding music to be bittersweet than purely happy or purely sad, and many listeners report that even sad music brings them pleasure.”