The advent of digital music has made it easier than ever for people who love music to find new music, to tailor what they hear to their personal tastes, and to take music on the go. In fact, it’s hard to go into nearly any public place without seeing people with headphones attached to phones or MP3 players, bringing music with them as they move through their day-to-day life.
Dentists seem to have been one of the first to understand what music can do when someone is facing a stressful experience, as headphones and music began to appear as enticement for dental patients wishing to avoid the rather vivid sounds of root canals and other dental procedures. But experts say the secret to music’s positive effects on health go well beyond simply drowning out unpleasant noise. Research has shown that the act of listening to music itself seems to affect the brain in a way that actually improves listeners’ sense of well being, and perhaps their overall health.
According to Dr. Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and the director of the New York University Center for Language and Music, listening to music can cause the brain to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a “pleasure” chemical that is released naturally during such activities eating or sex. It is also the chemical released when someone takes a narcotic drug, which is one of the things that makes narcotics so addictive.
In a recent blog post on CNN, Marcus noted that listening to something new signals to the brain that it is learning something new, and this inherently brings pleasure, since we’re wired to enjoy acquiring new information. In fact, Marcus has begun learning to play the guitar, seemingly doubling the positive dopamine rush of listening to music and learning a new skill.
He may be onto something there, as well, since research has suggested that people who constantly seek to learn and improve themselves – the work of “self-actualization” – sleep better, have better immune function, and have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Health researchers have found many ways to use music to help people who are dealing with disease. In one study at the Cleveland Clinic, investigators found that letting Parkinson’s disease patients listen to music during procedures actually helped slow the neuronal firing in the brains of patients undergoing brain surgery for the condition. In another study, Drexel University doctors found that cancer patients who listened to music or worked with a music therapist showed decreased anxiety and better blood pressure levels than those who did not listen to music. Scientists at the University of Gothenburg found evidence that listening to music that you like every day may help reduce your overall stress levels. And Mayo Clinic investigators have found many other positive effects from music, including boosting memory, improving mood, and promoting physical activity.