Music and Happiness

An Excerpt From The Happiness Trip, By Eduardo Punset

The most recent research has revealed that music, by acting on the central nervous system, raises levels of endorphins, the brain’s own opiates, as well as other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, acetylcholine, and oxytocin. Endorphins have been found to provide motivation and energy for life, to cause joyfulness and optimism, to decrease pain, to contribute to the feeling of well-being, and to stimulate feelings of gratitude and existential satisfaction.

At the Addiction Research Center at Stanford, pharmacologist and neurobiologist Avram Goldstein found that half the people studied experienced euphoria while listening to music. The healing chemicals generated by such joy enable the body to produce its own anesthetics and to enhance immune activity. Goldstein formulated the theory that “musical emotions,” that is, the euphoria induced by listening to certain music, were the result of endorphin release by the pituitary – the result of electrical activity propagated in a region of the brain connected to the control centers of the limbic and autonomic systems.

More recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a study of music therapy carried out in Austin. Stimulation by music boosts endorphin release and reduces the need for medicines. “It is also a means of distracting attention from pain and relieving anxiety,” explained one of the researchers. In a study published in 2001, Anne J. Blood of McGill University in Montreal, and Robert J. Zatorre of Washington University in St. Louis used positron emission tomography to show a correlation between pleasure responses to music and activity of the areas of the brain involved in the motivation-and-reward system. These include the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, and other structures that are also activated in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli like food, sex, or drugs. This study suggests that music mobilizes neural systems similar to those that respond specifically to important survival-linked stimuli like sex and food and also to others that are artificially activated by drugs. According to these researchers, activation of these brain systems by music may represent an emerging property of the complexity of human cognition. The capacity of music to induce intense pleasure and the stimulation of endogenous reward systems suggest that, although music is not strictly necessary for the survival of the human species, it represents a significant benefit for our physical and mental well-being.

Eduardo Punset is Professor of Economic Policy at the Chemical Institute of Ramon Llull University in Barcelona. He was Chairman of the Bull Technological Institute, Professor of Innovation and Technology at Madrid University, and IMF Representative in the Caribbean. He is currently Director and Producer of Networks, a weekly program of Spanish public television on Science. He has been a member of the staff of BBC, and The Economist.




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