Many headphone-wearing strawmen would argue that the drawling twang of slacker rock is best filtered through a haze of pot smoke, and EDM’s thump pulses harder with MDMA amplification. Ask any glassy-eyed music lover at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Governor’s Ball, or Electric Zoo — well, the younger ones anyway — and they’ll tell you that drugs make music sound better. But what they really mean is that it feels better. To the festival-goer’s brain, drugs and music are two paths headed toward the same destination: pleasure. There is some scientific basis for this bit of amateur neural mapping.
Top 40 and bong hits induce different highs, but there’s a lot of overlap in the processes they trigger in the brain. As a 2015 paper on the neurological basis of pleasure, published in the journal Neuron, confirmed, if you take brains on drugs and brains on music and run them through an MRI, chances are, the areas that light up would be very close together in a part of the brain right behind the eye sockets called the orbitofrontal cortex. This region is involved in “the encoding pleasures of sexual orgasm, drugs, and music.”
But what is pleasure, exactly? As you tune in and drop out at a gig, what you’re really experiencing is a rush of neurotransmitters, released at the end of a cascade of neurological events known as the “reward system,” that tells your brain to tell the rest of your body that everything feels great. We have many reward pathways, but the one involving dopamine, a neurotransmitter long implicated in the brain’s hedonistic endeavors, is often implicated in the pleasure induced by stoned concert-going. Music triggers a slow, manageable trickle of dopamine. Drugs release a stream. Together, they flood the pleasure zone.
MDMA causes a spike in the brain’s levels of dopamine as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, three neurotransmitters are thought to trigger the joy, confidence, and general pleasure that comes with rolling. Add music to the mix, and the levels increase. One small 2008 study published in the Brain Research Bulletin found that mice dosed with MDMA had higher levels of dopamine and serotonin after they’d been exposed to music (specifically, The Very Best Euphoric House Breakdown by the U.K.’s Telstar Records).
The rush of dopamine is also what makes marijuana and music such a perfect pair. Whether you’re vaping, hitting a bong, or dabbing, weed’s cheeriest effects are products of THC’s ability to bind the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, tricking them into kicking off the reward system. Weed is thought to also enhance human’s ability to detect subtle changes in sound and instrumentation, and even induce a sort of synesthesia.
Dopamine is also released in response to opiates like cocaine, which DrugAbuse.com found was especially widely used at Coachella last year (they discovered this through Instagram posts, of course); in fact, the drugs’ “addictive” reputation stems from their ability to release too much dopamine, giving the brain no choice but to crave the hell out of whatever released it. Ditto heroin, cocaine’s insane opiate cousin, the inspiration and cause of expiration of many of jazz music’s greats.
LSD, which is thought to enhance the emotional pull of music, works through slightly different pleasure pathways. Scientists are betting that the psychedelic drug, which mimics the effects of serotonin, another happiness-inducing (and potentially reward-related) chemical in the brain, could be useful in musical psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. In 2015, researchers with Imperial College London and the Beckley Foundation, two psychedelic research powerhouses, published a small study showing that LSD boosts our emotional response to music, at least of the “classical, neo-classical, ambient, and new-age” genres. Specifically, the emotions “wonder,” “transcendence,” “power,” and “tenderness,” which together read like a mood board for Burning Man, were elevated on acid.
Of course, the often performance-enhancing effects drugs have on our sense of hearing (and perception in general) only increase the amount we get out of music. But enjoyment, ultimately, is not about what we sense but how we feel about what we sense.
There’s a reason our ability to appreciate and make music survived throughout the millennia: Morten Kringelbach, an Oxford psychiatrist and expert on pleasure, has suggested that our brain’s ability to create and make music survived evolution because of the pleasure it induced, which in turn must have had some sort of cognitive health benefits to cave-age musicians. What our ancestors essentially figured out was a way to game the reward system. Their descendants, the music-loving stoners of Coachella Valley, the Black Rock Desert, and Chicago’s Union Park, just figured out how to double their return.