We love music for much the same reason we can be drawn to sex, drugs, worrying, gambling, video gaming, and fatty, sugary food. All, to differing degrees, cause our brains to release dopamine, a naturally occurring neurochemical, capable of addicting us to its pleasures.
Even anticipating the sounds of a composition like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” can get the feel-good chemical flowing. Brain scans showed that the brain pumped out dopamine both during the seconds of anticipation before the song began, as well as during the time when the music was actually played. (Valorie Salimpoor, McGill University in Montreal, Nature Neuroscience)
When things become really interesting is noticing that it’s the dopamine rush, in anticipation of pleasure, that can make it nearly impossible for some of us to pass an ice cream shop without indulging in a scoop – or two, watch an ad on television for pizza without picking up the phone for delivery of a large, extra cheese, spot a 40% off on a price tag without being seriously tempted to buy, or find ourselves in the heat of passion without acting on our drives. Heroin addicts receive an anticipatory surge of dopamine when they see blood enter the needle — before the drug even gets into their veins.
The big ah ha moment, however, is in understanding that the anticipatory rush of dopamine flooding the brain before experiencing the object of pleasure, whether it’s music, food, sex, drugs, gambling, aggression or violence, blocks important pathways to the prefrontal cortex (or Human Brain), where our executive functioning should be making reasoned, ultimately more satisfying choices for better long-term health, financial, relationship, and achievement – related outcomes.
What to do about it? While it takes practice, it’s not complicated. The key is early detection. Otherwise, dopamine hijacks our good judgement, and carries us, like a runaway freight train full-speed ahead, from the delight of anticipation to the fulfillment of a momentary pleasure, blind to possible train wrecks ahead.
At that point, a simple, deliberate intervention, including a pause and a few deep breaths, provides the Human Brain (prefrontal cortex) with the opportunity it needs to make a reasoned analysis of the situation followed by an appropriate decision. Congratulations. You’re back in control!