Today Trevor Gibbons, 54, can walk, talk, and even sing, despite having lost the use of his vocal cords and much of the right side of his body after having two strokes and falling from a 4-story window in 2001. The miracle remedy he credits with his ability to overcome the pain, disability, and depression that accompanied his accident? Music.
"One particular day, an intern named Lucy at Beth Abraham hospital [in New York city]…where I was being treated… came with a portable piano and tried to get me to listen to music even though I couldn't sing along at that point," the Bronx man says.
"I had to take so many narcotics for the pain, but when I heard the music, got into the music, the pain would just fade away," he says. When Lucy played "This Little Light of Mine," which Gibbons' grandmother would sing to him as a little boy in Barbados, it marked a turning point in his recovery and jumpstart a life-long dedication to music therapy.
Music has long been known as a balm for an ailing mind and body, but until now, nobody understood why. Researchers have documented for the first time exactly how good music changes the chemistry in the brain by boosting the pleasure chemical, dopamine.
Researchers from McGill University in Canada monitored the brains of eight 19-24 year olds as they listened to self-selected music using PET scans and MRIs. Music ranged from classical to jazz to punk and even techno – the only requirement was that the music be so good for the participant that it moved him or her to chills.
When compared to "neutral" music, listening to chill-inducing music gave participants a six to nine percent increase in dopamine. Results fromt the study will be published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience
"Before, researchers had shown that the pleasure centers in the brain light up when listening to good music, but they couldn't tell for sure if it was dopamine," says lead author and neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, Valorie Salimpoor. This is the first time that the actual surge in dopamine levels has been shown, she says.
Dopamine is the "brain's motivation system" Salimpoor says. It's in the interest of our own survival that we enjoy things like sex and eating, and "the [dopamine] system is an ancient reward system that evolved" to reinforce these necessary behaviors, she adds.
Why music has evolved to stimulate a similar pleasure reward is not as straightforward. "It's an intellectual reward as we focus on and follow the notes," Salimpoor says. "It seems relatively unique to humans that we have this higher order ability to experience pleasure."
Researchers asked participants to choose their own "chill-inducing music", as long as it was instrumental only. Because our brains are trained to respond in certain ways to the human voice, they allowed only instrumental pieces to avoid muddling signals about reaction to the music.
Researchers noted that while the pleasure center was activated throughout the music, getting chills from particular passages caused a spike in dopamine during and in the few seconds preceding it.
"The music is stimulating an emotional response and this response is both causing the chills and the surge in dopamine," Salimpoor says. (Chills don't stimulate the dopamine, they just happen to be a useful marker of heightened moments of enjoyment.)
Though increases in dopamine have only recently been documented in music listening, the effect has been utilized by music therapists for decades, says Jayne Standley, a music therapist at Florida State University.
"It's wonderful to have the science, but we've always known just by watching the patients," she says. Standley works primarily with premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. She uses music to help babies calm down and sleep when in pain because the pain response can interrupt their neurological development. The positive results and shorter hospital stays of the premies she treats lend an entirely new appreciation for the tradition of singing a baby to sleep.
Premies are also often born unable to coordinate breathing, sucking, and swallowing in a way that allows them to nurse and must be tube-fed for the first several weeks of life. Using pacifiers that play music when sucked, Standley says, helps the babies learn how to feed for themselves.
In children and adults, listening to music has been tied to numerous health benefits, from expanding blood vessels to treating pain to stimulating movement in Parkinson's patients, says Connie Tomaino, co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for music therapy at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services.
In the treatment of pain, whether neurological or emotional, enjoying music serves to "gate" the pain response, meaning that there aren't as many neurological pathways open to feel the pain because they are used in focusing on the music, she says.
The music we like also serves to put us in a state of calm and relaxation, reducing stress, says Dr. Michael Miller, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. Blood pressure goes down, blood vessels expand, and heart rate slows when we listen to music.
In the study released Sunday, the type of music chosen ran the gamut of genre, but interestingly, the selections that came up the most were Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and DJ Tiesto's techno version of Adagio for Strings.
"This piece was clearly composed to inspire powerful emotions," says Salimpoor, noting that this classical piece has also been used in many emotionally charged movie scenes.
Now that he's recovered, Gibbons has found his calling making music of his own and doing community outreach to stroke victims to show them the healing power of music.
"I'm living proof of what music can do for the brain," he says. "I would never be here today without it."