Medical Mysteries of Music

Music as a Painkiller (And a Sleep Aid)

It’s well established that music affects the brain in the same was as opioids. Could that mean music might be used as a painkiller? Wired investigates.

In September 2013, Marko Ahtisaari resigned from his position as the head of product design at Nokia. The Finnish company had just been acquired by Microsoft and Ahtisaari, the son of a former president of Finland, decided it was time to look for his next startup. He joined the MIT Media Lab shortly after, where he was introduced by Joi Ito, the Lab’s director, to Ketki Karanam, a biologist who was studying how music affects the brain. Ahtisaari was naturally interested: he grew up playing the violin and later studied music composition at Columbia University. “I used to be part of the New York scene,” Ahtisaari says. “I left to do product design and to be an entrepreneur. For 15 years I didn’t play much. I have friends who are now playing with Tom Yorke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

Karanam showed Ahtisaari that there was an increasing body of evidence based on imaging studies that showed what happens to the brain when exposed to music. “It fires very broadly,” Ahtisaari. “It’s not just the auditory cortex. What happens is essentially similar to when we take psycho-stimulants. In other words, when we take drugs.”

To Ahtisaari, this indicated that music could, at least in principle, complement or even replace the effects that pharmaceuticals had on our neurology. For instance, there were studies that showed that patients with Parkinson’s disease improved their gait when listening to a song with the right beat pattern.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37899 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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