Musical Dopamine

Listening to the Coronavirus Blues while Thinking About the Future

Music. I listen to it all the time. I have a headphone plugged into my left ear listening to rock ballads at the moment. I listen to it all day at work and I listen to it when I read in the evening, even for an hour after I go to bed, but is it the right thing to do?

When I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, he suggested taking time away from the influence of other people’s ideas, including music. He suggests that this is a method for getting in touch with the deep and meaningful thoughts that make a meaningful life possible while successfully filling time with productive and important things. I don’t remember all of his arguments, it’s been about six months since I read the book, but it was convincing at the time and it made me change the settings on Spotify so that instead of continually playing from album to radio, it would stop at the end of each album, making it a conscious choice what I listened to. It gave me a feeling of excitement that every forty-five minutes to an hour I got to choose something new to listen to. It made my music choices more deliberate.

But was it the right thing to do?

Reading Scott H. Young and Jacob Jilek’s Complete Guide to Working Memory, here, I came across the suggestion that music in fact decreases the abilities of working memory, making the effort of learning or concentrating more difficult. This made me wonder, should I not listen to music so much? Or should I be removing the earplug from my ear in the case of trying to accomplish deep work?

I decided to do some looking, though the Google keywords seemed elusive. There is a lot of writing on music in all of its aspects, and to target the right search terms was a struggle, but I eventually ran across this article, here, that suggested that listening to music does not add to intelligence like the Mozart and baby theory, but does affect us physically. It suggested there is a link between dopamine levels and music.

This gave me a better search term and I quickly found report of a 2011 study, here, that found that music, particularly meaningful music, increases dopamine levels in the brain. And the more the meaning, the higher the dopamine levels. That means that listening to music actually gives the brain a pleasure buzz.

And that explains why I’m hooked on music like drugs. I listen to it all the time, even when doing the most complicated of work, and I do it because I am dopamine deficient due to the meds I take for my schizoaffective disorder. By listening to music I give myself a natural high that makes me feel better, something that is vitally important since I can’t drink or do drugs. I’m left with coffee and music as stimulants.

It also explains why music is a disruptive force. If it gives the brain dopamine highs, then it is physically distracting, changing your mood as you listen to it, and creating a situation in which you could easily focus on the music instead of the learning/project/work you might otherwise be doing. Now, does that mean I’m going to stop my habit of listening to music while I work? Probably not, because I’ve ingrained the thing as a habit and I do pretty well focusing on something while listening to music, so I doubt I’ll change that behavior, though I might try to find some time in my day, maybe right before I go to bed, without music, to give myself the focus that I need to meditate or to find deep thoughts.

I don’t know. What do you think? Is music something that distracts or focuses you? Do you listen to is while you work?

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