Anything that alters any step of the hearing process can change how an individual experiences music. This can be a change to inner ear pressure or how the hairs in the inner ear vibrate, which can dampen sound. It can involve changes in how different areas of the brain interpret sounds and imagery created by music.
One of the most famous methods for changing how music and the brain work together is taking drugs, particularly psychedelic drugs. These drugs are reported to enhance the sensory experiences associated with music.
Music and the human brain are closely linked. Scientific studies of the brain have found that music can impact both brain function and human behavior by lowering stress levels, reducing pain, and managing symptoms of depression. Music can also improve cognition, motor skills, and spatial-temporal learning. Most important, playing music appears to help neurons regenerate and help the brain produce new neurons.
Studies have shown that people with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s respond very well to music, which can improve their mood, physical responsiveness and energy, and memory function.
For example, in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, patients tend to be less responsive to most stimuli; however, when their favorite songs are played for them, they may move their feet or hands or begin to sing. Their eyes are more responsive to the visual stimuli around them. This effect can last for up to 10 minutes after the listening session is finished.
Researchers have found that there is no one genre of music that has a greater effect on the brain than others. In fact, the music that lights up the brain the most tends to be personal favorites — songs from childhood, favorite music discovered on the radio, and trendy songs from the same generation or decade as the individual listening.
Music can change parts of your mind involving:
Listening to music can even help to reduce seizures, repair brain damage, and help you learn better.
Sound is a sensory perception. While our brains are listening to music and interpreting the collection of sounds and lyrics, there are connections within the ear that bring sound into the brain.
There are 3,500 tiny hair cells in the inner ear that vibrate as sound waves enter the ear canal. These vibrations are interpreted as sounds by the brain.
When you listen to music without doing anything else, the brain stem, cochlear nuclei, and cerebellum are all activated first. Then, the auditory cortices on both sides of the brain activate, and memory centers in the hippocampus and lower frontal lobes are triggered.
When you tap your hand or foot along to the beat, the cerebellum becomes involved. Listening to and recalling lyrics involves the communication center.
All drugs interact with the brain in some way — most often, by interfering with how neurotransmitters are sent and received, which changes how sensory inputs are processed. Some drugs mimic neurotransmitters, like opioid painkillers that mimic the brain’s naturally produced endorphins that help to manage intense pain.
Stimulant drugs like amphetamines can cause the brain to release large amounts of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, to cause a rush of energy and excitement.
Some drugs, like alcohol, have a wide effect on the brain. Others, like Z-drugs, have more targeted effects on specific neurotransmitters and receptors.
Sometimes, these effects dull the senses, like touch. In other cases, they enhance those sensations, like visual hallucinations.
Drugs in the broad category of psychedelics tend to have the greatest impact on perceptions. Since there are so many types of psychedelics, understanding the side effects on sensory perceptions like music can help the understanding of why so many people abuse these substances.”
While there are several psychedelic drugs, many of which trigger auditory and visual hallucinations, some psychedelics are more known than others. Here are the most famous drugs that may enhance how you experience music.
Marijuana: This is the most widely abused and famous psychedelic drug in the United States. While a nationwide movement to legalize marijuana has resulted in several states passing medical marijuana legislation and some states legalizing recreational use of this drug with restrictive laws similar to those regulating alcohol and tobacco, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. It is also very addictive, leading to compulsive behaviors due to its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects.
Many people who consume cannabis regularly describe an initial surge of energy and attentiveness, which then turns into a feeling of tranquility. Moderate doses of marijuana can change one’s perception of time and sensory experiences; however, larger doses may act more like stronger psychedelics, causing confusion, depersonalization, and hallucinations.
MDMA/Ecstasy: This drug is famously taken at large dance clubs or parties as a way to enhance sensory experiences for hours and prevent fatigue. MDMA is technically a stimulant drug with hallucinogenic properties, releasing a flood of dopamine and serotonin into the brain that elevates the heart rate and body temperature along with heightening all sensory experiences.
People who consume MDMA report that they enjoy touching different textures, seeing glowing trails or halos on lights, and feeling the music in ways they did not expect. The release of so much dopamine also causes a strong comedown the next day, with symptoms of exhaustion and depression. People who abuse MDMA may become addicted to this Schedule I substance.
LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, is one of the most famous synthetic hallucinogens in the psychedelic family. It is produced by a small number of clandestine laboratories, and it is not abused as often in 2019 as it was during the 1960s and 1970s. While it is famously found on blotter paper and placed on the tongue, it is usually produced first as a colorless, water-soluble crystalline powder that can be mixed into other forms.
People who abuse LSD do so for the sensory changes, including audio and visual hallucinations, and the changes to normal perceptions, including music. LSD has also been associated with artificial synesthesia, or blending senses to cause one to experience “hearing colors” or “seeing sounds.”
It is unclear of LSD is truly addictive, but some people do abuse it repeatedly. With the modern microdosing phenomenon to enhance performance at work or during creative activities, more people may show signs of addiction to this illicit hallucinogen.
Shrooms/psilocybin: Like LSD, psilocybin/psilocin is a chemical that changes how the brain processes sensory information, including sounds or visuals, and may lead to hallucinations. While LSD is a synthetic chemical, psilocybin is a naturally produced intoxicant found in some types of mushrooms, called shrooms. The chemical disrupts how the brain manages serotonin, making the neurotransmitter more bioavailable.
People who have taken this hallucinogen report that lights and colors are brighter, tastes are stronger and better, visual perception feels sharper, and hearing is more acute. This means that someone intoxicated on psilocybin may perceive more tones or beats in music, distinguish the individual instruments, or find other experiences in otherwise familiar songs that grab their attention.
Ketamine: This drug was initially produced as a surgical anesthetic, and it is sometimes still used for this purpose; however, ketamine is more often abused for nonmedical reasons, which can be very dangerous.
At specific levels, ketamine produces specific effects, including changes to perception and feelings of detachment from the body, the self, and surroundings. Hallucinations are a common effect of ketamine intoxication, including changes to how sound is perceived. This means that music could be warped or enhanced, or the person may perceive “hidden messages” in the lyrics. Although the drugs listed above have some pleasant, relaxing, or stimulating experiences, including enhancing how your brain processes music, they ultimately cause dangerous side effects such as high body temperature, rapid heart rate, depersonalization and derealization, and other psychiatric symptoms, including depression and mood swings.
Abusing any drug puts you at physical risk. Hearing music in a new way is not worth the potential for acute danger or long-term harm.
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