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Sex, Drugs, and Music Are All the Same to Your Brain

A pill that blocks a drug high ruins music enjoyment, too.

Bob Marley was onto something with the whole "when [music] hits you feel no pain" thing: The brain seems to process music the same way it processes painkilling narcotics, according to new research from McGill University in Montreal. 

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, tested subjects' enjoyment of their favorite songs, once after they took the opioid blocker naltrexone and once after they took a placebo. Researchers used both measures of muscle movement and self-reports to gauge their delight. By statistically significant margins, the subjects relished their favorite tunes less while on naltrexone, a drug that shuts down the brain's opioid receptors and is prescribed to addicts to make their substance of choice pleasure-less. 

"The opioid system is this big question mark," said Daniel Levitin, lead author of the study, as well as the book This Is Your Brain on Music. "We know from animal studies that the same areas of the brain affected by opioids are affected by food and sex. … We didn't know much about music because animals don't enjoy music."

Levitin said the inspiration for the study came from a conversation with Paul Simon. (Yeah, he said he "talks regularly" to that Paul Simon.) Prior research on the brain and music measured subjects' reaction to songs picked by the researcher. But what constitutes enjoyable music is highly subjective (as anyone who has ever taken a long car ride with a sibling knows). Simon suggested a look at how people reacted to their own favorites. Levitin saw this as a way to regain the "emotional control" sacrificed by making subjects react to music researchers picked that might not speak to them. 

The 17 subjects were, in the words of the study, "asked to bring to the laboratory two music recordings that reliably produced intense feelings, including but not limited to the sensation of chills." Selections included "Lonely Boy" by The Black Keys, "Primavera" by Santana, "Creep" by Radiohead, "Turn Me On" by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd and Overture: The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.

Levitin wasn't surprised there were a few downers. "A lot of people find great pleasure in sad songs," he said. "When we hear sad songs, the brain releases the neurochemical prolactin, the same comforting chemical that a mother releases when nursing a child. We find it in both mother and child [during breastfeeding]. When we're feeling sad and misunderstood, that chemical is released to show us we're not alone." 

Subjects put on headphones and researchers measured their involuntary movements. The subjects also controlled a sliding scale with which they reported how engrossed they felt in the song from moment to moment. The scale went from 0 to 100—0 presumably representing how one absorbs the soft jazz played at Panera Bread and 100 an experience on par with popping a Queen cassette into the deck of the Mirthmobile.

Although they didn't know when they were on naltrexone, respondents were much less into the songs while they were. The study concluded that "music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure"—which might be a scientific explanation for why sex, drugs and rock and roll make such a winning combination.