NPR’s Tom Huizenga wants to know why he gets blissed out when he hears a great musical performance. So he asks musical neurologist Dan Levitin what’s going on:
The McGill University professor confirmed that I’m far from alone in experiencing these very strong reactions to music. And it seems my analogy to drugs wasn’t far off.
“It’s not surprising that we have these intense reactions to the environment and that they can be said to be similar to drug states,” Levitin told me. “They are drug states. They are drugs in our brain causing different cascades of neural activity.”
Not that Levitin wanted to take away any of the “mystery or majesty” of my musical experience, but to a neuroscientist all our experiences are, he said, characterizable in terms of different neurochemical states.
“Music modulates levels of dopamine in the brain which is a chemical responsible for reward and pleasure,” Levitin explained. “It also modulates serotonin levels and norepinephrine, a stimulant. And in the right combinations, these can give rise to feelings of ecstasy and intense pleasure — almost a sense of being at one with the world.”