How listening to good music is like having sex
A new study shows that a favorite piece of music can make your brain release dopamine, just like having sex, using drugs, or eating good food. Researchers at Canada's McGill University say their findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, will help us understand both our minds and our evolution better. Here's a look at what sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll have in common:
What exactly did the McGill team study?
Valorie Salimpoor and her team had eight participants from a pool of 217 volunteers listen to a piece of instrumental music that consistently gave them "chills," and scanned their brains over the course of three listening sessions. They also measured the "chills" themselves, through changes in the subjects' temperature, skin conductance, heart rate, and breathing. The other 209 contenders were eliminated because they didn't reliably get goosebumps, or because they brought music with lyrics, which the McGill team avoided to keep the study focused on music.
So what did the participants want to hear?
The most popular piece was Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," both the orchestral version and a techno dance remix. Other hits included Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune" and the second movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But participants didn't just pick classical: Punk, jazz, rock, and even bagpipe music made appearances, too.
How much happier does music make us?
The participants' dopamine levels rose by up to 9 percent when they were listening to music they enjoyed, and "one person experienced a 21 percent increase," says Salimpoor. "That demonstrates that, for some people, it can be really intensely pleasurable." People who don't get chills also experience the rise in dopamine, says study co-author Robert Zatorre, as did the eight subjects when they listened to other participants' selections, but the rush wasn't as strong.
How does music compare to other pleasures?
Studies involving psychoactive drugs like cocaine registered relative dopamine spikes of 22 percent and higher, Salimpoor says, and pleasurable foods can send dopamine levels up 6 percent.
What does this study say about music, and us?
"Art in general has survived since the dawn of human existence and is found in all human societies," says Zatorre. "There must be some strong value associated with it." The study does show that music is important to humans, but not why, says Vicky Williamson at University of London. It's a starting-off point to explore "why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing, or film to manipulate hedonistic states," says Salimpoor. We now know that dopamine can make you "like a crackhead for those sweet, sweet tunes you like," says Jeff Neumann in Gawker. Isn't that enough?