Brain Chemistry: The Science Of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll


The same chemicals responsible for mediating feelings related to the pleasure of sex or recreational drugs also mediate the experience of musical pleasure, according to new research conducted at McGill University. The study is the first to correlate that the brain's 'opioids' are involved in musical pleasure.

The research, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, used new means of understanding the brain's chemical reactions. Previous research employed brain mapping in identifying the areas of the brain that are active when musical pleasure occurs, correlating it only implicitly with opioids.

Pleasure From Music, Similar To The One From Sex Or Drugs

As part of the research, the team of scientists who conducted the study blocked brain's opioids with naltrexone, a drug usually prescribed as a treatment for addiction disorders. The researchers evaluated the subjects' response to music, finding that even their favorite songs were unable to cause any feelings of pleasure.

"We administered NTX to a group of naïve participants in a double-blind placebo controlled experiment, and assessed musical reward using a combination of objective and subjective measures. Further, we controlled for musical experience, state, and trait anxiety, arousal, and the familiarity of the music. We instructed participants to choose their own favorite piece of music, and we also presented experimentally verified "neutral" music (neither happy nor sad) as a control for emotional valence and intensity," noted the research.

According to the researchers, although the findings weren't surprising as they confirmed the scientific hypotheses, the subjects' impressions were fascinating.

"[...] But the anecdotes -- the impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment -- were fascinating. One said: 'I know this is my favorite song but it doesn't feel like it usually does.' Another: 'It sounds pretty, but it's not doing anything for me,'" noted cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, senior author of the study.

Sexual intercourse, alcohol consumption, gambling, or other activities people enjoy can create addiction and negatively influence the lives of those who practice them abusively. From this point of view, a better understanding of the brain chemistry responsible for the anatomy of pleasure is a highly relevant research path of neuroscience. However, it was only recently that researchers have developed the necessary tools to conduct these types of brain studies on people.

Previous research has shown that listening to music affects the levels of serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine, prolactin and oxytocin. Consequently, listening to music can produce feelings of pleasure, and people mention music among the top ten things in their lives that bring them most pleasure, above money, art, and food, according to the study.

Brain Connectivity And Pleasure

Another research had shown that a minority of people, approximately three to five percent globally, can't feel joy in music. According to that study, the cognitive link between listening to music and reward has a reduced connectivity, which makes it possible for people not to feel any pleasure when it comes to music.

Poor brain connectivity is also the cause of other issues related to cognitive ability, such as the inability of feeling pleasure in hearing a human voice in children who suffer from ASD.

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