Home Health “Music is a real dope for our brain”

“Music is a real dope for our brain”


Lhe Fête de la musique, celebrated every June 21, celebrated its 40th birthday on Tuesday and made its big comeback after a two-year hiatus, to everyone’s delight. The party was in full swing. But music, much more than an object of entertainment, is also a scientific object. Hervé Platel, professor of neuropsychology, in collaboration with the B2V Observatory of Memories, sheds light on its close links with our physiological functions, our emotions and our memory.

Point : How does music affect our brain?

Herve Platel: What is obvious is that the decoding of music makes the brain work in an extremely large way, and is not limited to one or two specific areas as we have long thought, a little naively. Indeed, brain regions “light up” when listening to a song or piece. But neuroimaging has clearly revealed to us that just like areas of memory, those related to the regulation of emotions, the reward circuit or motor areas come into play. Often, I use the metaphor of the jogger.

What is the jogger metaphor?

Go for a run with headphones and you will get a glimpse of the diversity of the effects of music on our brain and our body. The first one you’re going to get is a neurophysiological training effect. That is to say that you will synchronize with the tempo, which will help you to support your efforts: there are very privileged connections between our auditory regions and our motor regions. We are talking about auditory-motor loops. This reflex to move in rhythm is already present in babies, who are able to nod their heads to a sound, even before they can walk. Even animals like the cockatoo or the parrot do it! To return to our jogger, his attention is also captured by the music, which distracts him from painful information. It is the same phenomenon as that produced by hypnosis or meditation in chronic pain patients. The icing on the cake: if the music in our ears is familiar and appealing to us, the reward circuit is stimulated and releases all kinds of feel-good substances – oxytocin, dopamine, or even norepinephrine. – which also help to reduce painful sensations. It is a well-studied phenomenon in neuroimaging, which is called the musical thrill. No wonder then that music is banned in sports competitions! It’s a real dope.

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Do rhythms and melodies give us all the same emotions and reactions?

Yes, this question has been studied. And this despite the fact, of course, that we don’t all share the same musical tastes. Music carries in its very structure elements that make it a means of emotional communication. It is the result of our evolution and it is something universally shared. For example, in all human civilizations, mothers sing the same kind of lullabies to children to calm and reassure them. In general, a melody with small rises, small descents, without too aggressive sounds will be considered calm, relaxing, and therefore rather pleasant. Some music is structured in such a way as to capture our neurovegetative system. They have a direct effect on our feeling of stress and slow down our cardiorespiratory system. Conversely, a lively rhythm will be more likened to joyful music, and will stimulate breathing and heart rate.

Music is a sensory experience. Like a smell or a taste. A Proust madeleine, in short!

You were also talking about memory. How is it related to music?

Because we grew up in human cultures, we all naturally recognize music when we hear it. Or almost: a small part of the population – 2 to 3% – is unable to do so. This is called amusia. And identifying the music is first of all doing it from a memorial point of view. Is this music I’ve heard before? If so, in what context? Can I give it a title? Remember the lyrics? From the start of musical stimulation, the structures of memory, in particular the hippocampal regions, but also the temporal regions – which are associative areas – are solicited. We immediately try to find out if what we are hearing already exists in our cerebral “database”. It is irrepressible. And when you recognize the song or piece, and you like it, the pleasure you get is intimately linked to memory. There is a waiting effect that is created because we know that at such and such a moment the singer’s voice, a flight of violins or a guitar solo gives us goosebumps. When this expectation is finally fulfilled, euphoric substances surge in our brain.

And sometimes music is like a time machine…

Absolutely. Music is a sensory experience. Like a smell or a taste. A Proust madeleine, in short! A very strong memory reviviscence can occur when listening to music. For many people, certain music is true autobiographical markers, very strongly anchored in certain moments of their life, of their youth. So much so that pieces have already brought dozens of people out of comas. Unfortunately, these cases have not been the subject of many studies. This happened in particular in 2014 to a baker in his sixties, who had been in a vegetative state for several days. The radio in his bedroom played “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. After just a few minutes, he woke up. This song was the first 45 rpm he had bought, in 1965. He then explained that hearing it reminded him of his youth, his vitality. And finally, got him back on track. This evocative power is a phenomenon that we have also been able to observe in our work, largely dedicated to musical memory in people affected by memory disorders.

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Can music help people with Alzheimer’s disease, for example?

What is very surprising in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease is that this musical persistence of memory is very strong. This is a major advantage from a clinical point of view: music can be used as a lever of communication to stimulate certain patients. It all depends on the stage of the disease. Several studies in rodents have shown that music promotes the creation of new neurons. It is therefore believed that, as such, it is useful in prevention and in the early stages of the disease. Moreover, through its emotional power, it reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms. It helps to regulate emotional disorders and behavioral disorders up to a fairly advanced stage. But, even though we thought that Alzheimer’s patients no longer had the possibility of encoding new information in their memory, our work has shown us the opposite.

What have you discovered?

By having patients listen to songs they did not know, by having them sing new melodies, we noticed that they were able to retain them, even though they did not remember having taken part in the workshops where these songs were presented to them. And that they were unable to tell us when and how they learned them. They have long-term memory. This is something we thought was absolutely impossible.

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