The brain-chemical system that is stimulated by listening to our favourite music also mediates the feelings of pleasure from sex, recreational drugs and tasty food, researchers have found.
“This is the first demonstration that the brain’s own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure,” said Daniel Levitin, from McGill University in Canada.
“While previous work by Levitin’s lab and others had used neuroimaging to map areas of the brain that are active during moments of musical pleasure, scientists were able only to infer the involvement of the opioid system,” Levitin said.
Researchers selectively and temporarily blocked opioids in the brain using naltrexone, a widely prescribed drug for treating addiction disorders.
The researchers then measured participants’ responses to music, and found that even the participants’ favourite songs no longer elicited feelings of pleasure.
“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’,” Levitin said.
Things that people enjoy — alcohol, sex, a friendly game of poker, to name a few — can also lead to addictive behaviours that can harm lives and relationships.
So understanding the neurochemical roots of pleasure has been an important part of neuroscience research for decades.
However, scientists only recently developed the tools and methods to do such research in humans.
“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,” Levitin said.
For example, all 17 participants were required to have had a blood test within the year preceding the experiment, to ensure they did not have any conditions that would be made worse by the drug.
Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin, and the new findings “add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music,” the researchers write.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.