The human response to music is widely recorded and integral to the well-being and identity of every culture throughout history. While we understand the importance of music, we don’t fully comprehend how music affects the brain, or to what degree it is actually addictive. A recent scientific study offers evidence that music addiction is as real as drug or sex addiction.
Why do humans love to listen to the same types of music, or even the same songs, over and over? A study by Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University, investigated the ways in which dopamine affects the brain while music is playing. They also measured body temperature and heart rate.
With their brains under observation via Position Emission Tomography (PET) subjects listened to their favorite music while scientists observed dopamine release. The subjects were instructed to press a button during times in the music when they felt chills or excitement. Researchers recorded an increase in dopamine when the subjects were anticipating certain parts of their favorite music. The brain’s limbic system, which governs its response to emotion, reacted to the peak moment when subjects pressed their buttons to signify that they were experiencing a music-induced high. Salimpoor notes, “the euphoric ‘highs’ from music are neuro-chemically reinforced by our brain so we keep coming back to them. It’s like drugs. It works on the same system as cocaine.”
The human response to music is well documented throughout history. Research into the physical effects of listening to familiar music and the topic of music addiction is fairly new, however. Dopamine release is commonly associated with a human response to the fulfillment of needs. This type of brain activity is a hard wired survival mechanism. The McGill University study shows us that music, an abstract stimulus, is worthy of further study, as is the human response to aesthetic stimulus. Humans are likely evolving to better process and enjoy this type of external stimulus, making it crucial to achieving a higher quality of life.
Humans go to great lengths and spend vast amounts of time, money, and effort, in order to experience the ideal musical experience. One modern example of a deep seated fan culture is the legendary Deadheads. This group of people followed the Grateful Dead all over North America throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in an effort to see as many shows as possible. This community eventually began using the term “X Factor” to express how their experiences at Grateful Dead shows became something more than just listening to music. Blair Jackson, Jerry Garcia’s biographer said, “for many Deadheads, the band was a medium that facilitated experiencing other planes of consciousness and tapping into deep, spiritual wells that were usually the province of organized religion ... [they] got people high whether those people were on drugs or not."
The collective obsession with replicated music via high-end stereo systems and expensive portable electronics illustrates the overwhelming need to keep favorite music, including motivational or comforting playlists, close at hand. According to a recent Nielsen study, 40 percent of Americans claim 75 percent of music spending. Could the 40 percent be music addicts? This group of super-fans also indicate that they are willing to spend more. Premium services like pre-orders, limited editions, original lyric sheets from the artist, and other exclusive extras prompt them to open their wallets wider for a better music-buzz.
Thankfully, there is no conclusive research proving that our collective addictive response to music is harmful. In fact, dopamine release is vital to humanity’s survival and ongoing happiness. While addictive drugs may break down the human body in various ways, music only lifts spirits and encourages community.
Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music
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