Does Music Affect The Brain in the Same Way As Drugs And Sex?

By Dorri Olds 02/28/17

A recent study used an opioid blocker to examine if music created pleasure by using the brain's opioid pathways.

Woman listening to music.

According to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, your brain’s natural opioids are released when you are grooving to your favorite music. This is the same chemical reaction in your noggin that lights up when you have sex, taste food, or partake in recreational drugs.

“This is the first demonstration that the brain’s own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure,” cognitive psychologist and senior author of the paper, Daniel Levitin, said in a press release

Levitin’s team at McGill University in Canada recruited 17 participants and instructed each subject to bring two favorite songs with them to the laboratory. They were also told to select two songs that they felt neutral about.

The researchers asked the subjects to choose the music, rather than choosing it for them, because the effects would be greater for “self-selected pleasurable music.” 

They gave the study participants naltrexone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors in the brain, to see if they would experience a song differently when given an opioid-blocker versus a placebo.

When the participants used naltrexone, they did not find the same pleasure in listening to their favorite songs. “Normally it made them feel good, but [naltrexone] left them not feeling anything,” said Levitin.

When the participants listened to songs that they were indifferent to, the naltrexone did not make an impact.

The researchers acknowledged that preliminary studies had shown that listening to music—and performing it—changes your levels of serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin. “Music can reliably induce feelings of pleasure, and indeed, people consistently rank music as among the top ten things in their lives that bring pleasure, above money, food, and art,” the study said.

Scientists already knew that the opioid and dopamine systems are linked; previous research has shown that blocking the opioid system can reduce the activity of the other feel-good chemical, dopamine—but this research was related to food, drink and drugs. Levitin's study is the first to experiment on how the brain's internal opioid system reacts similarly to music.

“[Music] can be viewed as a ‘healthy addiction,’" said Professor David Zald of Vanderbilt University, according to Newsweek. "It may not be surprising that the same neurochemicals and receptor that play a key role in addiction play a role in musical pleasure.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.