Have you ever seen people singing, dancing, and drumming at a rock concert or a rave or techno party and thought, “These people must be high on drugs?” Well, as it turns out, they may just be high on singing, dancing, and drumming.
Those are the findings of a study conducted by University of Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar, and published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Dunbar and his associates were performing experiments on pain thresholds and what affects them, and involved musicians in their research. They found that people who had been playing music together developed a much higher tolerance to pain, which indicates that they were producing more endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Interestingly enough, merely listening to music didn’t produce this effect. As Dunbar says, “We conclude that it is the active performance of music that generates the endorphin high, not the music itself.”
Group-participation music isn’t just a form of social bonding, it releases endorphins
In the first of their four experiments, Dunbar and his colleagues tested the pain thresholds of two groups of musicians – 12 drummers who play together on a regular basis, and 9 employees of a music store. The researchers had the drummers play together for 30 minutes and the store employees work while listening to “continuous, lively background music” for the same length of time, and then tested the members of each group, putting pressure on their non-dominant arms until they reported feeling pain. The drummers had a significantly higher pain threshold than the store employees. The most logical reason for this that the researchers could think of is that participating in the group drumming had triggered the production of endorphins, which act as a not only a natural opiate or painkiller, but also foster feelings of happiness and contentment.
The researchers then attempted to confirm their findings in other experiments. In one, they performed similar pain threshold tests on members of a church group that practiced “communal singing, accompanied by clapping and a great deal of upper body movement,” and compared them to a group of people participating in a prayer meeting that did not involve music. The charismatic church singers again had significantly higher pain thresholds than the possibly more pious but less musical Anglicans.
In a third test, they compared the pain thresholds of dancers with a group of musicians rehearsing. The dancers in this case had much higher pain thresholds than the musicians, which the researchers attribute to the start-and-stop nature of rehearsing. The musicians were not able to play long enough to create the “flow state” that seems to produce more endorphins. A final test compared people merely listening to either fast or slow classical music on headphones (but not participating in creating the music); they found no increase in pain threshold for either group.
So what is it about participatory music or dance that produces endorphins?
The researchers point out that in most cultures, rituals involving group singing, dancing, and drumming are important because they help to create and strengthen the bonds of society. Cooperating on the music or the dance helps to make people cooperate in other ways as well. This phenomenon is well-known, and may account for the presence of music and drumming in church or religious services, and in military settings. But no one has known before what the cause of this bonding is, so the finding that it may be related to the production of endorphins is new and potentially valuable.
Dunbar argues that the study’s findings provide some evidence that music generates the kind of endorphin “highs” that facilitate cooperation, and that make it possible for cultures to work together peaceably and survive. Practical medical applications of this obviously preliminary research are still a long way off, but don’t be surprised if someday you complain to a doctor about a pain in your back and instead of saying, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” he says, “Take a break with my other patients playing music and dancing in the other room, and then we’ll check to see how severe your pain is afterwards.”