(Twenty-second in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
What can we do when our hearts break – not just a hairline crack or even a fissure but when they break wide open and all we are feels as if it is pouring out until we can no longer live? Music, and more specifically songs, is what many of us turn to in an attempt to stanch the flow of our life-force and regain our emotional equilibrium.
Songs have been part of our salvation since John Leif died. We have gone back to them repeatedly, listening and singing with them to steady ourselves, to bolster our failing resolve, to soothe our broken hearts, especially in the first year after his death. Clapton’s “Broken Hearted” was one of our best-loved at that time in our lives because we share broken hearts from the loss of a son to a tragic death: “Who alone will comfort you? Only the broken hearted.”
There are scientific reasons for why singing makes us feel good. When we sing, large parts of our brain “light up” with activity, says Sarah Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. “There is a singing network in the brain [which is] quite broadly distributed,” Wilson said in an interview with Sarah Keating in May 2020. When we speak, the hemisphere of the brain dealing with language lights up, as we might expect. When we sing, however, both sides of the brain spark into life.
The physical exertion involved in singing is among the reasons why it can boost our mood. Singing is an aerobic exercise which sees the release of endorphins and it is one of our body’s greatest stress-relievers. “Endorphins relate to an overall lifted feeling of happiness, which gives a feeling of euphoria so it’s all associated with a reduction in stress,” Wilson says. “In any situation whether it is under stress or any physical ailment, illness, psychological deprivation, music has the potential to affect our body and mind.”
Research continues to confirm that singing is very good for us and studies have shown that group singing is even better for us because there is a communal release of serotonin and oxytocin. It even synchronizes our heart beats. Singing is good for community. And close-knit community, an area in Western life that has all but disappeared, is implicated as one of the main reasons for a generation of young people seeking a “high” from substances that was previously obtained from being closely involved with others in activities like communal singing and service.
Who would have guessed that singing releases positive neurochemicals like endorphins and oxytocin, the same ones responsible for the pleasure center and reward system in our brains, the same ones that opiates, alcohol, and other drugs mimic and then deplete? The same ones that relieve pain, reduce anxiety and stress and boost our immune system? Oxytocin is known for its effects on mediating reward, social affiliation and bonding, stress, learning, memory. It is sometimes referred to as the “hormone of love” due to its role in lovemaking and fertility, labor and birth, and the release of milk in breastfeeding. It triggers nurturing and bonding. It is important in enhancing trust and the feeling of connectedness between people. Brain imaging studies show that it reduces activity in regions of the brain that produce anxiety which is one motivating factor for the use of opioids and benzodiazepines.
Oxytocin is so important in our overall sense of well-being that there are new drug therapies using oxytocin being tested and developed to help in opioid addiction treatment. It makes sense given that oxytocin, along with other important neurochemicals, are overstimulated and depleted from using drugs of abuse.
But rather than decades more of ameliorating drug and alcohol addiction with recovery programs and medication, could we consider that one way in the effort to rebuild community would be encouraging families to return to the age-old activity of group singing, especially beginning in school while children are young. Introducing them to the joys and connections with others will have life-long positive benefits for them and society.