Question Your World: Can Music Prevent You from Feeling Pain?

Posted: July 25, 2022

The hottest question right now is CAN KATE BUSH SONGS REALLY SAVE SOMEONE FROM THE UPSIDE DOWN?! Okay, so, we can’t really answer that specific question, but maybe science can answer this one: can music prevent you from feeling pain? Now for that question, we happen to have a newly published research paper that strikes the right chord! 

Turns out neuroscientists love music as much as the rest of us, and have been studying the many, varied effects of music on multiple parts of the brain. This newly published research paper is the first to identify specific circuitry in the brain and the underlying neural substrates involved in the relationship between processing sounds and pain. 

For this research, scientists exposed mice with inflamed paws to three types of sounds: a lovely beautiful piece of classical music, a weird arrangement of the same piece and white noise. The idea here was to see which of these would reduce the feeling of pain in these mice. Turns out that any of these sounds played at a very low volume, about that of a whisper, seemed to reduce pain sensitivity in the subjects. 

When turned up all the way up, it had no impact. Regardless of the pleasing music, unpleasing music or just white noise, the volume of the sound was more important than the type of sound. 

Then they took it … to the next level. 

To better understand the brain circuitry, they created a non-infectious virus with fluorescent proteins so they could trace where in the brain all this sound-to-pain-reduction stuff was happening. They observed a route from the auditory cortex, where we process our sounds, to the thalamus, which is like the sensory signal hub of your brain. Yes, that includes where the brain senses and processes pain. At low volumes, white noise reduced neural activity at the intake portion of the thalamus. 

The researchers eventually replaced sound with light, and just like the softly played sounds, the light at the neural receiving end of the thalamus mimicked the same pain reduction effects. Once the light was turned off, the subject went right back to feeling pain like normal. 

Now, does this mean we have a new way to deal with pain simply by listening to a Kate Bush song on repeat? No, not quite yet, but this does give researchers a starting point to explore if this finding can translate to the human brain. Much more research is needed, but this is a great example of how unusual studies in scientific research could lead to safer alternatives for treating pain. 

This will presumably open the door to more music-related research funding. Maybe then we’ll finally be able to explore that “Kate Bush effect” on those experiencing turmoil in the Upside Down ... but that’s another research story for an alternate dimension, ahem, we mean another day!