In the 2001 hit “Pop,” an NSYNC-era Justin Timberlake asked: “Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?” If you weren’t satisfied with his pithy answer (“It must be pop”), allow science to step in: Researchers from McGill University just discovered that, yes, music literally gets you high because it makes the brain dip into its own stockpile of opioids.
Publishing their study today in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists confirm what researchers long guessed was true: Drugs and music (and sex) activate the same pleasure centers in the brain, which in turn are powered by the brain’s own opioid system. “This is the first demonstration that the brain’s own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure,” said Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and the senior author of the paper in a statement.
When people take opioid drugs, like heroin, morphine, or fentanyl, they’re really just inducing the brain to release huge amounts of dopamine, the chemical involved in inducing feelings of pleasure, via the opioid system. Music, the researchers discovered, does the same thing on a less intense scale.
They discovered this by investigating how people would respond to music if their opioid systems were crippled. With a medication called naltrexone — which is commonly used in treating addiction disorders — they knocked out the opioid systems in their participants, then had them listen to music. Suddenly, songs that the participants had once deemed meaningful no longer did it for them. Levitin reports that one participant said, “I know this is my favorite song but it doesn’t feel like it usually does,” and another commented, “It sounds pretty, but it’s not doing anything for me.”
This was the first scientific proof that the ability to enjoy music is anchored in the brain’s opioid system — and, conversely, evidence that when we do enjoy music, it’s because the brain is getting high. In addition to demonstrating that naltrexone is really good at shutting down the ability to feel pleasure (they surmise that it would have a similar effect on sex), the findings might provide some insight into the mystery of why music developed universally among humans in the first place. Early humans, it seems, might have just wanted an easy high.
The comments from Levitin’s participants sound a lot like descriptions of music from people suffering from musical anhedonia — those who don’t get any pleasure out of music. But unfortunately for anhedonic people, it’s not their brains’ opioid system that’s the problem — it’s their ability to trigger it with sound. Levitin’s experiment would not have been very useful on people who heard music perfectly well but had brains that couldn’t link that sound with pleasure.
In light of this research, Timberlake’s remarks were correct — though his view at the time was too narrow: Pop music does get us high, but so do other types of music. Still, perhaps it’s his understanding of the science of musical highs that’s kept him around for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, science has yet to propose a theory that will stop him from making songs like “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which feels less like a high and more like a mind-numbing, albeit inoffensive, crash.