Have you ever listened to your favourite song and felt a certain type of high? Ever repeated that new song on your playlist over and over just so you could re-experience the sensation you felt the first time? According to a study done by McGill University neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor, this may not be because of the song’s appeal, but because of a neurotransmitter and hormone named dopamine that is released by the brain when listening to music.

In a Nature Neuroscience journal, Zatorre and Salimpoor report that dopamine – which plays a role in underlying pleasurable reactions caused by food, drugs and arousal before intercourse – induces chills, increases heart rate and body temperature when listening to music as well. Using a Position Emission Tomography procedure, better known as a PET scan, Zatorre and Salimpoor found that all of the 196 participants in their study released dopamine while listening to music they personally found pleasant. It is argued that because dopamine is also released when eating and using drugs, it is safe to deduce that music is also a form of addiction, commonly referred to as Music Addiction Disorder (MAD). As Jimi Hendrix said, “Music makes me high on stage and that’s the truth. It’s like being almost addicted to music.”

“Dopamine is important because it makes us want to repeat behaviours. It’s the reason why addictions exist, whether positive or negative. In this case, the euphoric ‘highs’ from music are neurochemically reinforced by our brain so we keep coming back to them,” says Salimpoor. “It’s like drugs. It works on the same system as cocaine. It’s working on the same systems of addiction, which explain why we’re willing to spend so much time and money trying to achieve musical experiences.” Eleanor Bekker, a first-year BCom Business Management student, says that when a new song hits the charts, she is reluctant to focus on anything else. “I will listen to the song for days without thinking anything of it. Even if the lyrics are meaningless, something keeps me coming back for more. Take the song ‘Bands A Make Her Dance’ – the lyrics are sexist and just plain ridiculous, but we can’t stop listening to it.”

Studies have shown that dopamine enhances your mood and stimulates positive emotions. When dopamine levels in the body are low, negative side effects occur. Beverly OMalley, who has a master’s in nursing and lectures at the University of Newcastle, says, “Dopamine is a precursor to epinephrine [more commonly known as adrenaline] so when dopamine levels fall, you may feel unable to cope with stress or you may notice that you are easily irritated and frustrated. Low energy levels may also result.”

Dieter Borlinghaus, a first-year psychology student, adds that if he does not listen to his daily dose of music, his mood is affected negatively. “My music keeps me going, without it I might as well just stay under the covers the whole day,” he says.

According to the University of Texas Addiction Science Research and Education Center, dopamine also influences the parts of your brain that control body movement. Take exercise, for example. In a 2012 research review on exercise in the UK, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”Karageorghis says that music “distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual – often without realising it.”

Charmaine Erasmus, a second-year BEng Chemical Engineering student, explains that she studies better when listening to music in the background. “Music calms me down and just stimulates my brain. It helps me much more than any type of energy drink or even coffee.” Music clearly boosts our moods, performance and general life experiences. We may get bored by a song once it has been played numerous times, but we will always be on the lookout for new songs to give us the same effect.

The question remains: can we really consider music a drug? “Dopamine is not really a ‘feel good’ chemical. Instead, it’s the ‘please do this again’ chemical,” says Salimpoor. “So that’s why it’s involved in addiction. Our brain is telling us to keep doing this again, and we do, which is why music has been around forever.”

Image: Reinhard Nell and Brad Donald

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