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Music really is like a drug, researchers say

January 09, 2011|By Eryn Brown

You know that feeling you get when you listen to a favorite part of a favorite song?  Some scientists have a refreshingly unscientific word for it: They call it the "chills." In the lab they can measure the chills, which correspond with a specific pattern of brain arousal and often are accompanied by increases in heart and breathing rates and other physical responses.  

Now neurologists report that this human response to music -- which has existed for thousands of years, across cultures around the world -- involves dopamine, the same chemical in the brain that is associated with the intense pleasure people get from more tangible rewards such as food or addictive drugs. The research will be published Sunday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Kind of changes what it means to be addicted to your iPod.

To find out whether dopamine was involved in the enjoyment of music, researchers at McGill University in Montreal asked participants to listen to a favorite selection of music they brought in themselves and to a "neutral" selection of music they hadn't selected.

As the subjects listened, they were asked to press a button when they felt the chills.  To confirm and peg down the timing of the chills response in relation to the music, the researchers also monitored subjects' heart and breathing rates, temperatures and other physcial responses. They also observed listeners' brain activity as their music played during positron emission tomography (PET) scans and during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests.

The results?  PET scans showed increased dopamine release when subjects listened to pleasurable music (as opposed to "neutral" music). The fMRI results showed the researchers that the increased dopamine activity occured both during periods of anticipation of hearing the favorite bits of music and during the listening experience itself -- although different parts of the brain were involved.  

The discovery is significant, the authors wrote, because dopamine response is usually associated with more direct rewards associated with human survival -- such as food.  Showing that dopamine is also involved with our reactions to an abstract, aesthetic stimulus such as music might help explain, they wrote, "why music is of such high value across all human societies."  

It doesn't prove you need art to live, exactly.  But it may hint that you have evolved to enjoy it.

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