‘Tripping the World Fantastic’ with Oxytocin

Tripping the World Fantastic_0I recently finished reading a book called Tripping the World Fantastic: A Journey Through the Music of Our Planet.  The author, Glenn Dixon, visits a different world locale in each chapter, experiences some of the music there and then attempts to answer some fundamental questions about music and its effect on us. Such as why people make music in the first place.

Some of his more interesting ruminations are when he explores the role of the brain in music creation and enjoyment.

We’ve all heard of dopamine, a chemical activated in the brain when we’re experiencing pleasure.  Music is one of the many things that can trigger the release of dopamine. Dopamine is released when we’re listening to music we like, but it can also be released when we’re just anticipating listening to that music.  Dopamine enters the area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens – an area that has been associated with addictions.  As Dixon writes, “…music does in fact have many of the hallmarks of an addictive drug. We crave music. It seems to enhance our lives, lighting up our pleasure centers like a lab rat pressing on a bar.”

The book goes on to discuss the fact that it’s not just dopamine associated with music in our brains. Psychologist Steven Pinker calls music “a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits.” Scientists are finding that a chemical called oxytocin is one of those auditory recreational drugs. Oxytocin plays what may be an even bigger role than dopamine in our relationship with music.

Around age 12, certain brain changes begin to take place that last till we’re about 23. Neural speed is greatly increased, and our brains become faster at thinking as a substance called myelin sheathes the neurons. Yet, myelin reduces our ability to make new neural connections, which is partly why before this buildup of myelin we can more easily learn languages, musical instruments, etc.  We can learn new skills still after our teenage years, but it’s more difficult.

At the same time myelin starts covering our neurons, oxytocin starts being released by the brain. Oxytocin is important for social connections and bonding.  The first rush of oxytocin happens when we’re newborn, forming mother/baby and family connections.  The next big rush is at age 12, when we’re peer bonding. When our family bonds are shifting to peer bonds.  It’s partly why teenagers begin seeking independence.

It’s also why music we hear as teens has such meaning for us: the oxytocin has a side effect of making us bond with the “markers of this time in our life”.  We bond strongly to the books, movies, and music we experience then.

This all explains why I can still listen to Night Ranger and enjoy it. I knew there must be a reason.

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