Neuroscience shows listening to music has kind of the same effect as meditation

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What do the Dalai Lama and a bass-music fanatic getting low at 3am at Burning Man have in common?

A surprising amount, actually.

From mood enhancement and relaxation to full-blown oneness with the cosmos, music has the ability to powerfully shift our state of mind. Meditation is not that different. Meditation lowers the stress hormone cortisol, helps us sleep better, and rewires the brain with a host of positive emotional qualities. Attempting to meditate in a nightclub may not be high on the list of recommended practices for monks and yogis, but maybe it should be: When you’re fully lost in music, you’re getting a taste of nirvana without any of the rigorous training.

As both a musician and meditator, I believe that there is a connection between the exalted states on the dancefloor and the spiritual states achieved in meditation. Since the late 1990s I’ve been DJing and producing music with the likes of Bassnectar, Santigold, and Professor Green, and I’ve also been trained in meditation in the Yogic, Tibetan Buddhist, and Theravada Buddhist traditions.

The goal of both music and meditation is to create a powerful and positive shift in our mental state. Music is a reliable source of transformational experience for many, and we are attracted to music for the same reasons that meditators meditate. Music and meditation both allow a fuller and richer experience of our emotions: They stop our incessant and often negative mental chatter and offer us an opportunity to inhabit the present moment more fully and meaningfully. These are all important for good health and happiness in human beings.

Music and spirituality

“Music is the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit” – Ludwig van Beethoven

Our species has a longstanding obsession with rhythm, melody, and harmony. The aboriginal people of Australia believe in “songlines,” which manifest reality and everything in it, and some native Americans believe that life was brought about and sustained by the “song of the creator.”

Music is part of all authentic spiritual traditions: It has been utilized as an important element of spiritual rites and rituals to unify groups with each other and the divine, to focus the mind, explore deeper truths, and to transcend the bounds of ordinary existence. The chanted mantras and ragas of the Hindu traditions, the psalms of David in the Bible, yoga’s seed syllable “om,” and the hymns of modern gospel churches are all examples of tools that are universally used to bring spiritual practitioners to higher states of consciousness.

So what is it about music that imparts these shifts in mental state almost instantly, when it might take a meditator many years to achieve the same effect reliably without music? It’s not one thing, but a combination of many different effects that work on different parts of the body/mind complex. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Listening in the present

“Music can minister to minds diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with its sweet oblivious antidote, cleanse the full bosom of all perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart” — William Shakespeare

Like meditation, music brings us into the present. But unlike a painting, which can be perceived as a whole more or less instantly, a piece of music is impossible to access in its totality without paying close attention for the entire duration of the song.

Music forces us to take a present-centered perspective on reality in order to engage with it. Whether it’s Debussy or deep house, in order to perceive a musical piece we have to follow each beat or note as it happens in real time. This sense of being present feels good; not being present can even make us unhappy.

One of the reasons we love music so much is that we can forget our troubles and just be. Immersed in sound and devoid of the usual angst of life, we perceive our world from a hyper-present flow state.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” One of the markers of flow is “transient hypofrontality,” which is a state where our sense of self temporarily deactivates and the parts of the brain that generate feelings like anxiety and self-doubt are subdued. In this state, the activity becomes entirely rewarding in and of itself without regard for outcome. Could life be like this all the time?

Most meditation traditions assume the answer to this question is yes. They work with flow as a tool by utilizing meditative states called “jhana,” which fulfill the criteria for the flow states that music listening and playing can generate. As the great sages of southeast Asia have been telling us since the Axial Age, the gateway to happiness is opened when we can let go of our sense of self and the neurosis that comes with it.

Change the station by changing the music

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” — Bob Marley

Much of the time, humans are stuck worrying about the past and the future rather than the present. This happens when a subsystem of the brain called the default mode network is active. Although it normally results in anxious and stressful thoughts, evolutionarily it offers great benefits. We spend much of our time ruminating on past events to learn from what went wrong, and we think about future events in order to prepare for them.

But because of another evolutionary adaptation called negativity bias, much of this ruminating is focused on negative events, both past and future. This makes it taxing on us both mentally and emotionally. In a Harvard study by psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel T Gilbert, mind-wandering has been closely linked with unhappiness. He and co-author Matthew Killingsworth state that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

When we listen to music, research has shown that the default mode network is activated, but with a very different emotional outcome. When the default mode network is engaged by music we love, it appears that even though we are in a waking rest state (which is the typical playground for the negative ramblings of the default mode network), the mind focuses on the music. Instead of worrying about that project due at work, the unpaid credit-card bill, or what to wear at the wedding next weekend, we get sucked into the music. For the length of that song or concert, we’re much less likely to comb our memories or future for negative or unresolved trauma or events. Sweet relief!

For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have known the effects of an activated default mode network as “mind wandering,” and the tools to transcend it are built into the meditation system. By using gently repeated intentions, noting of thoughts as they arise, and a general increase in mental power, Buddhist meditation allows us to transcend the random and negative imaginings about past and future.

Studies at Harvard show that meditation inhibits the functioning of the default mode network that is associated with anxious mind-wandering. The resulting “here and now” mind-state generates a deep sense of focused calm, well-being, and a strong connection to others. In fact, meditation’s default-mode-inhibiting qualities may be one of the key driving factors of its well-documented ability to reduce anxiety and stress-related disorders. Using meditation skills to focus on where we are and who we are with—AKA “living in the present moment”—greatly reduces the types of thinking that cause unhappiness.

Let it all out

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness” — Maya Angelou

Music also helps us through challenging emotional times. Who hasn’t sat down in a fit of morose self-pity and listened to one of Nick Drake’s depressed musi-tragedies, the sweet sadness of jilted Marvin Gaye, an impossibly dark Cure album, or Adele’s teenage diary? Reaching for our favorite song to cheer us up is commonplace, but we’re often strangely attracted to listening to sad, dramatic music when we’re feeling blue. Why would we do that to ourselves when we feel really shitty already?

“Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain,“ says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University who studies the effects music has on the human brain. Studies from the UK show that we often have a kind of cathartic reflection to depressing music that feels great in the long run.

As mentioned before, listening to music activates the default mode network, but it also primes the brain for empathy. As a coping mechanism to prepare us for the emotional trauma described in the music, the brain creates a potent cocktail of feel-good neurochemicals. When the song finishes (and the faux-trauma with it), our brain is left awash with the remaining neurochemicals. The result is a brain immersed in a warm and fuzzy opiate bath. Free drugs!

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up perfectly:

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.”

Meditation is also a way of experiencing our emotions more fully. But rather than outsourcing our emotional expression to music in meditation, we’re taught to quieten the mind and let the latent and repressed emotions arise. In a state of relaxed mindfulness, we allow emotions to arise without suppressing them or getting caught up in them, and in this way the feelings, memories, and trauma can fully express in a safe space. This generates greater emotional literacy, releases stored negative emotions that can cause illness, and increases our focus and mindfulness—all of which are associated with happiness.

Music: It’s dope, I mean

“Music is a moral law. it gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything” — Plato

It’s been demonstrated that listening to music also releases a powerful compound called dopamine, which is one of the happiness neurochemicals. It’s well known for being the brain’s “reward” drug of choice for encouraging actions that are good for reproduction and survival.

“It is interesting to think that while animals get these ‘rewards’ from things like eating and sex…humans get them from abstract or aesthetic pleasures like art, poetry or music, that as far as we know don’t have any survival value,” Salimpoor says in one of her studies. It provides a hit of euphoria that leaves you craving more, which is why it’s such a potent driver of behavior. It’s the same neurochemical that sends humans chasing cocaine relentlessly until 2pm after staying up all night, is associated with falling in love, and, yes, features in the meditation experience, too. Dopamine is a large part of what is thought to make music attractive to the human brain.

But there’s one difference with meditation: You get the dopamine hit, but without the craving for more. As this study on Yoga Nidra meditation shows, practicing this yoga based-meditation increases the dopamine’s euphoria effect, but decreases the need to act. This leaves the meditator with dopamine’s buzz, but with a greatly decreased likelihood that they’ll do something dangerous or dumb to keep the high going (hello, cocaine!).

In Buddhist meditation, you train yourself to lessen the craving to act on our evolutionary urges that are reinforced by dopamine. Buddhists believe that this is directly tied to a reduction of suffering and a heightened sense of happiness and connectedness in daily life. In fact, after realizing nirvana, the historical Buddha stated in the first and second of his philosophy-defining Four Noble Truths that “the cause of suffering is craving.”

Feeling one with others

“I think music (is)…something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music” — Billy Joel

As a regular concert-goer knows, there are times when the crowd seem to become a single entity: areas of the arena moving and flowing like a wave on an ocean of vibration, the uniqueness of any one person lost in a seismic togetherness that is beyond the physical. The feeling is exhilarating and blissful, and the longer a good concert goes on, the more harmonized and integrated the audience becomes. What we call a “vibe” in the club or concert can be quantified both psychologically and physiologically.

In the meditation world, this experience is explained as a loss of self in the group. The rush of unity and oneness that arises is due to the loss of ego, instead replaced by something that the enlightened ones have written about for millennia: that we are all connected in far deeper ways than appear on the surface.

Scientists are now measuring this collective experience at concerts. They have found that when we gather together in front of live performers in large groups, there is a brain synchrony in the delta range that is related to both increased enjoyment of the experience (the exhilaration), but also of affiliation with those at the show (oneness).

And why are fans at music gigs and raves generally very open and friendly? (Well, aside from that reason—but we’ll have to save drug use for another article.)

Music has the ability to transpose emotional tendencies from the audio sense to the visual sense. This means that after listening to music that brings us happiness, we interpret the sight of faces of others as happier, irrespective of their actual facial expression. In this way, music not only makes us happier, but allows us to forego our assumptions and our judgements about others. Instead, we interpret the world around us as a happier place. (Again, this is a primary tool and goal of meditation.)

Research by the Arts and Humanities Research Council has found that music is also an emotional contagion: Participants show more positive associations with images of people from two different cultural groups after listening to music explicitly belonging to that cultural group. The researchers suggest that the participants’ brainwaves and physiology were aligning in measurable ways—what scientists call “entrainment.” With music, this entrainment is not just an alignment to the rhythmic and melodic components of the music, but there is also an emotional entrainment that occurs at the same time. This creates a quantifiable connection and positive affect.

Buddhist “loving kindness meditations” do a very similar thing. By training for emotional entrainment, meditators experience pronounced prosocial effects in everyday life. This study shows that “the practice of loving kindness meditations led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe…They enabled people to become more satisfied with their lives and to experience fewer symptoms of depression.” It even increases the brain’s gray matter in regions related to empathic response, anxiety, and mood regulation.

Both music fans and meditators know that feeling connected to ourselves and others feels great, but meditators don’t wait for D’Angelo to tour or the Pixies to reform (again): We take what music fans know and retrain our neural pathways to do the same thing, whether there is music playing or not.

To music or meditate—that is the question

“Meditation can make life musical, and music can bring a deep inner peace” — meditation master Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

The study of how music affects the mind/body complex is a relatively new field, but you don’t need a scientist to tell you how your mental state shifts while listening to your favorite music—you can feel it yourself. It brings us closer to being able to understand life and our place in it, and helps us transcend the ego by connecting with those around us in a more positive, holistic, and healthy way.

There are many qualities that we can experience under the influence of music with no formal training. These include increased focus, empathy, lowered stress levels, pain relief, and prosocial tendencies. These are all also well-documented effects and goals within the various Buddhist meditation systems too.

So the next time you are sliding to your favorite tune in the club or at a concert, take a second or two to notice the magic it creates. Ask yourself, “What would it be like to have this feeling all the time?”

Googling “local meditation class” might be a good way to find out.

Garcia Muriel

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