How Getting High and Listening to Music Games Your Dopamine Reward System
Does the music make the drugs better, or do the drugs make the music better? Yasmin Tayag of Inverse explores the relationship between drugs and pleasure, and how this affects the way we listen to music.This article originally appeared on Inverse
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.