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The Bizarre Truth about Music Addiction

Updated on September 1, 2016

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people brag about being “addicted” to something. You know the type: the frat boys uploading a photo to Facebook after their latest liquor store run with a caption that reads something like this: “Such an alcoholic LOL #turndown4what #foreveryoung, etc.”

Then there are the chocolate people – need I say more?

Provided you don't belong to one of these groups, you probably view them with a bit of annoyance. People tend to view addiction as a serious, debilitating thing, one that destroys relationships and eats into savings just as hungrily as the addict feeds off of his or her own vices.

Many of us know people suffering from alcoholism or opiate addiction, to name only two examples, and it's easy to become frustrated with someone who just seems to be making cheap excuses for their bad habits.

"No, you don't understand - believe me, I NEED..."

So when someone casually mentions being addicted to something we typically consider harmless (like coffee or music), we tend to roll our eyes. This kind of skepticism even extends as far as partially recognized afflictions like sex addiction, for which one would more likely be the object of crude jokes than honest sympathy.

Perhaps the most hollow-sounding of them all is the addiction to music. This elicits an exasperated response from almost everyone, it seems – I mean, how could that be a real thing?

Humanity's intimate relationship with the musical arts stretches back to the earliest known civilizations, and the prevailing attitude held by many people can be summed up with a famous quote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

A lover of music (and more than a few drugs)
A lover of music (and more than a few drugs) | Source

Sounds somewhat fanatical, doesn't it? From personal experience however, it doesn't seem far off at all. I used to hate the long commute on the subway with a passion – the only thing that could save me from having to listen to some suit loudly brag about his upcoming business trip on the phone was my iPod. If I forgot it at home, I would always turn back, even if that meant being significantly late to class – or work. Does that sound like rational, healthy behavior?

No, but I'm willing to bet it's far from unusual, either. We live in a society increasingly marked by constant input of one form or another: advertisements, podcasts, mobile games, etc.

While the effects of our intimacy with these kinds of media are definitely worth looking into, music has simply been around for a much longer time – as long as we can remember, in fact. In this day and age however, it's exponentially more accessible than ever before. We no longer have to go to a friend's house to listen to our favorite records – we can now just stream most of them directly from our phones.

Addiction or Habit?

Now, you may be thinking: “Sure, we may want to listen to music all the time, but there is a clear difference between that and actual addiction.”

Well, according to modern research, this may not be quite true. Many people describe a rush they feel when listening to their favorite music – more commonly known as the “chills.” Like a drug, this is typically felt most intensely when experiencing a certain piece for the first time, or when returning to a favorite after a long break.

This may seem abstract and impossible to measure, but in 2011, neuroscientists Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre did just that. They found that levels of dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain also released when taking various drugs, surged during the most important moments of subjects' favorite music, confirming that dopamine is the source of the chills we feel when listening to music that really moves us.

Most of us in a nutshell
Most of us in a nutshell | Source

Dopamine has been found to play a key role in various drug addictions. It is a tool the brain deploys to reward stimuli such as food and sex, and drugs such as cocaine go after the part of the brain in which it is released. This reward stimulus motivates us to seek out the activities we subconsciously know will get us more dopamine. Some of these, like food and sex, are necessary for survival – others not so much. However, knowing that the same processes make us want to repeat both of these types of behavior goes a long way toward explaining how different activities can be thought of as addictive.

After all, caffeine is addictive, if not nearly as severely so as meth, for example. Addiction doesn't necessarily mean cold sweats and pawning off your valuables. It also works in more subtle ways. So the next time one of your friends starts bragging about how he or she is addicted to music, there might be more truth to this than you think.

That still doesn't make it any less annoying, though.


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