Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How do we experience ecstasy through music?

By Amy Zampiero
Music and the Brain
October 22 2012

How is it that music can produce feelings of ecstasy in people?  Music has the ability to tap into the most primal instincts and create a heightened sense of feeling and identity.  Recently, I came across a taped recording of myself as a three year old being interviewed by my older sister. I felt inspired to sing each and every answer instead of speaking them as questions were being asked. I was always fortunate to be surrounded by music, which facilitated my experiencing many personal epiphanies and experiences of transcendence.

In the book “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy”, Jourdain references many supporting perspectives about the euphoria feeling.  He says, “special neurons produce substances called endorphins which resemble opiates and which act on neurons in the brains pain pathways…if endorphins are released when there is no pain to be counterbalanced, a euphoria results that is much like that produces by drugs like morphine”. (Jourdain, 317) Leading researchers such as Robert Zatorre and Godfried Schlaug have studied this peak emotional response to music as well Valorie Salimpoor has done studies.

Zatorre and Salimpoor measured this pleasurable response to music in terms of the brain and physiological responses.  In one study, participants experienced an increase of dopamine levels from 6%-9% and as much as 21%.  Other physical effects indicating emotional arousal included increase in respiration rates, heart rate, body temperature, and electrodermal activity.  Peak pleasurable responses like involuntary chills down the spine were also noted. (Salimpoor, 4) The research shows that the participants were listening to what was going to occur in the music and when that build-up of anticipation happened they noted a positive peak arousal. This cognitive function in the brain occurs through memory and anticipation, also noted in Jourdain’s book, is at the basis of understanding pleasure arousal in music.

Listening repeatedly to a song also aids in deepening the listening experience. A memory shaped by repeated experiences slowly unravels the complexities of melodic contour, rhythm, phrasing and the underlying meanings of a song become clearer.  The listener is able to decipher the phrasing more deeply after listening each time and the long term memory recall occurs more deeply within the elements of music. This memory response to music listening is noted in Godfried Schlaug’s research with timed emotional responses. He noted that participants responded more quickly to music that was of their favorite genre, which in turn shows familiarity as a significant factor in emotional response. Interestingly noted is that self-selected music usually has a faster response time for emotional arousal. (Bachorik et al., 6) The conclusion of this study states that “Music is a temporal art; by using this method we can begin to understand, at a behavioral level, how and when such temporal features lead to the development of musical emotion.” (Bachorik et al., 6)

In the book Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, music therapy aids in the improvement of Alzheimer and dementia patients’ memory and overall well-being.  He states “Listening to music is not a passive process but intensely active, involving a stream of inferences, hypothesis, expectations and anticipations”. (Sacks, 211) Referring to music as the quickening art, Sacks shows how the structure of musical phrasing, contouring and patterning reveals a complex momentum in the brain. This happens whether we are actively or passively listening to music, a series of anticipations occur, and when they are resolved by the music, the listener becomes satisfied resulting in pleasure.

In the film “Alive Inside” Alzheimer patient Henry, is shown to be completely unresponsive, depressed and unable to respond to simple yes or no questions. He was reported to sit motionless most of his day with his head down and his hands crossed.  He doesn’t recognize his own daughter when she greets him.  He was said in the film to be a music lover all his life. When the Ipod was introduced, containing his favorite music, he immediately lights up and is brought to life, opens his eyes wide, and his face assumes expression, and he begins to rock and moves his arms.  This becomes his consistent reaction.  When the Ipod is removed momentarily after a listening session, he is asked, “What does music do to you?”  He responds emphatically, “It gives me the feeling of love, romance.  I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing.  You’ve got beautiful music here, beautiful, lovely.  I feel the band of love, of dreams.  The lord came to me and made me holy, I’m a holy man! So he gave me these sounds”. (Cohen) These triggered pleasure responses enliven patients, enabling them to engage with others and often regain lost memory.

Not only does the build up of anticipation produce ecstasy, the effect is intensified by way of deeply embedded memories that are stored in the limbic system.  Sacks’ patients were also found to have improved memory after exposure to music. He furthers this point by saying “the aim of music therapy in people with dementia is far broader than this; it seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts and memories, the surviving self of the patient, to stimulate these and bring them to the fore.  It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization and focus.” (Sacks, 336)

The positive effects of music through dopamine release, memory recall and resolved anticipation shows that music reveals a complex series of events physiologically and neurologically. Our pleasure arousal peaks when the momentum of these events snowball therefore inducing euphoric states in the brain. Jourdain concludes “As our brains are thrown into overdrive, we feel our very existence expand and realize that we can be more than we normally are, and that the world is more than it seems. That is cause enough for ecstasy.”(Jourdain, 318) This intensely pleasurable response to music correlates to activity in the brain regions associated with good food or drugs. Whereas addictive behavior, using food, sex, alcohol and drugs, can be used to alter mood and achieve good feelings, often at a cost to good health, the research would suggest that activities such as music therapy could be used to elicit a person’s positive pleasure response.

Bachorik, J. P., Bangert, M., Loui, P., Larke, K., Berger, J., Rowe, R., & Schlaug, G. (04/2009).                        Emotion in motion: Investigating the time-course of emotional judgments of musical stimuli. Music Perception, Volume 26(Issue 4), p. 355.

Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., & Dagher, A. (02/2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, Volume 14(Issue 2), p 257-262.

Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. (09/2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 98(Issue 20), p. 11818 - 11823.

Cohen, D. (2011). Man in nursing home reacts to hearing music from his era. Retrieved 12/08, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyZQf0p73QM
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Ritter, M. (01/2011,). Music gives pleasure in more ways than one, study finds. The Charleston Gazette, pp. p. B.8.

Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York, NY: Afred A. Knopf.

Salimpoor, Valorie N and Nenovoy, Mitchel and Longo, Gregory and Cooperstock, Jeremy R and Zatorre, Robert J. (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS One, Volume 4(Issue 10), p. e7487.

Zatorre, R. (09/1997). Soundwork. Volume 277(Issue 3,2), 08/2012.

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