IRA FLATOW, host:
This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we'll be talking with Jane Goodall. But first, you had a bad day, you get into your car, you head home, you flip on the radio. What happens? You hit the shuttle button, maybe on your MP3 player or your iPod. Your favorite song comes on.
(Soundbite of joyful music)
FLATOW: And you're hearing that song and it makes you feel joyful. I know Margot Adler just walked by. She said it made her feel great. Well, in addition to giving you a bit of a mental rush, believe it or not, it may have been doing your heart some good as well. In a work presented this week at the meeting of the American Heart Association, researchers say that listening to joyful music can actually dilate your blood vessels and make it easier for blood to flow through them. And that song you just hate, the one that stresses you out, well, you're right, it might - you might want to change the channel and get it off your playing list because listening to that music can actually make your blood vessels constrict.
To talk about the connection between your play list and your heart health, is Dr. Michael Miller. He's the director of Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine in Baltimore. Welcome to the program, Dr. Miller.
Dr. MICHAEL MILLER (Director, Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center; Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Maryland's School of Medicine in Baltimore): Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: You actually tested this out on people.
Dr. MILLER: We did. We tested it on a number of volunteers who actually enjoyed participating in...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: I'll bet. What did you have them do?
Dr. MILLER: Well, what we asked them to do was to select a number of their favorite musical selections that they really enjoy. So, we didn't want to force upon them music, whether it's classical or a specific entity. We wanted them to choose based upon their previous experience, those individual songs or artists that made them feel good, gave them a sense of euphoria, if you will.
FLATOW: And then you brought them in and you had them listen to the music for a certain period of time?
Dr. MILLER: Right. We did ultrasound testing of their upper arm in order to evaluate their - the inner lining of the blood vessels have that response. So for example, we know that mental stress causes that inner lining to constrict, and our previous studies on laughter had demonstrated that we could expend those vessels after watching a movie that promoted a hearty chuckle, if you will. So in this particular experiment, we now had them listen to music for about 30 minutes.
FLATOW: And their blood vessels expanded? I mean, they dilated.
Dr. MILLER: The blood vessels expanded right...
Dr. MILLER: On an average of about 25 percent, which is similar in magnitude to what is previously been observed with aerobic activity and also (unintelligible).
FLATOW: That's amazing. You must have been surprised.
Dr. MILLER: Yeah, we were pretty surprised. We were again, the idea of being whether or not there's a strong connection between mind and the heart - and there appears to be - we've known that of course, with respect to stress and anxiety-provoking situation. ..TEXT: FLATOW: And we've all heard about these endorphins that people get from the runners' high, things like that.
Dr. MILLER: Exactly. Now, we don't know the precise biochemical mechanism, but endorphins would service as one of our leading contenders here because we do know that when you feel good, that endorphins are released. And the real question is, is there direct activation from endorphin release from the brain as the direct activation to the inner lining of the blood vessels or the endothelium, if you will? Or is there a cross talk between the release of endorphins and then activation, if you will, of nitric oxide, which is the primary - one of the primary chemical mediators that causes this expansion of the blood vessel.
FLATOW: So you're saying that if you can, have a good laugh, then listen to a good song.
Dr. MILLER: Yes. And you could have a little bit of dark chocolate with that while you're on your treadmill.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, get them all in one place. Now, you know, sometimes for me - I mean, I noticed that this works for me. To hear a great song, it relaxes me. I feel better. It actually changes my mood. But it seems that there has to be sort of a time interval between. You know, if I hear the same song every day, it's not going to work as well.
Dr. MILLER: You know, Ira, that, I think is a critical point. And one of our recommendations in terms of asking the volunteers prior to them engaging in the experiment, we asked them to refrain from listening to their favorite music for at least two weeks. You know, there's this effect called emotional desensitization. So you know, if you listen to the same song that you hear on the radio, which of course is the problem with playing top 40 songs.
So you like the song, you get a high, if you will, from it. But they played it over and over again and then you become desensitized. And so, you know, if we were going to make a recommendation about listening to music on a regular basis as part of an overall heart healthy program, we would say to listen to your favorite song, then put it away for a couple of weeks and then switch off with other songs.
FLATOW: What I also found equally intriguing is the opposite effect - that if you listen to unjoyful music, it constricts your arteries.
Dr. MILLER: Right. Again, this is similar to what has previously been observed with a mental stress or asking somebody to subtract seven from a hundred mental arithmetic exercises, they promote a feeling of anxiety. And then other chemicals, perhaps, are released, overriding this beneficial effect leading, in effect, either to no react - no response or to, as you point out, some evidence of constriction.
FLATOW: So it's like watching a bad or a sad movie, I would imagine.
Dr. MILLER: Yeah. Depression has been shown to induce similar findings. Remember the endothelium serves - the inner lining of our blood vessel serves as the gatekeeper to vascular health. And in fact, as you know, towards the development of hardening of the arteries, the earlier stage in that process is changes in the endothelium, such that there is endothelial dysfunction, if you will, prior to even the development of plaque formation.
FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in here. From David in St. Louis. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Hey. I was calling about one, I actually - this was from - it was a - I don't remember university did the study. I was in college 10 years ago, and the study may have been from 10 years before that. I don't remember, but they were testing the performance of the football team while they were lifting weights with different varieties of music. And as they're playing upbeat music or no music, their performance was about the same. The one that really stood out to me was that if they played reggae, that literally, I guess if the players, for lack of the better term in music, feel the groove, that they would physically lift less weight while listening to reggae than listening to other types of music.
FLATOW: You mean, more weight - they lift more weight while listening to reggae.
DAVID: Well, no. They said their performance actually dropped off.
FLATOW: Oh, it dropped off. They didn't like the reggae.
DAVID: No. It wasn't that they didn't like it. It wasn't whether they liked it or not. I guess it was just the fact that reggae is a rather low energy type performance and that their bodies kind of mimic that.
FLATOW: Let me get a reaction. Is it the fact that you have to like the reg - or like the music? Or is that the fact they're involved.
Dr. MILLER: Well, you know, obviously, we didn't just specifically evaluate that. The question is maybe they're too relaxed. And by being too relaxed...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MILLER: they just didn't have the motivation to lift the weights. So, the reggae was so pleasing to them, they didn't feel like doing anything else.
FLATOW: Now you only had 10 people. Is that enough to be able to say that this is a real effect?
Dr. MILLER: Right. So these individuals participated in four different activities. And when you use yourself in what we refer to as a crossover design, then in fact, because there were so - there was minimal variability, obviously, compared to having two different individuals participate. This would give you statistical power of more than 40 individual people. So - and of course looking at the baseline measurements among the different phases, we're very tight. We also had one individual gentleman named Charles Mangano who's been doing this for 10 to 15 years, and a real expert in the area, who did all the studies himself. So having one individual doing all the studies really, I think, with a lot of experience, helps to enhance its solidity.
FLATOW: Well then, would - is there something special about the music or with any activity that makes you feel good also help your blood vessels?
Dr. MILLER: Well, it's a great question. And clearly, it's now been demonstrated for the two positive emotions, laughter, it's also been demonstrated, by the way, in dark chocolates. We know exercise also causes this beneficial dilatory effect, and now music. So my best guess is, if we're promoting this idea of endorphin release, then it would be any kind of activity that would bring on a feeling of euphoria, if you will.
FLATOW: So there has to be some sort of emotional rush going on here.
Dr. MILLER: I believe so. I believe that could be the case here. Now again, we need to go back to the lab and evaluate the biochemical factors that may be promoting this. (Unintelligible) in my laboratory will be doing these analysis but - so I think there's more to the story to help us understand this mind-heart connection.
FLATOW: So your prescription for those of us listening this Friday and for the weekend.
Dr. MILLER: Yes. My prescription is to, of course, never take ourselves seriously to begin with. But secondly, to play music that we really enjoy, especially when we're in traffic and we can't do anything about it anyway. So you might as well put on something that will help to relax you, make you feel good, and then put it away for two weeks and then switch off with other music that makes you feel good.
FLATOW: And of course you say, make sure you don't listen to it too often because you're going to use yourself up, so to speak.
Dr. MILLER: Right.
FLATOW: You're going to acclimate to it.
Dr. MILLER: You're going to get the biggest rush obviously when you - at the first or second time that you have heard it, once you're, of course, familiar with it.
FLATOW: Well, we have a question form Twitter, from Plainsight says, 'is there an objective - is there any objective data on what music is, quote, "joyful or stressful." Or does it depend on the person?'
Dr. MILLER: I really think it depends on the person because obviously what music brings joy to you may not bring the same feeling of joy to your colleagues. And so I think again it's something that we need to obviously investigate, but individuals are so different. It's really, I think, unique to that person. And it can be based upon previous experiences or can be based upon, you know, on the name of a song. For example, the song 'Lana' from Roy Orbison reminds me of my daughter Alana, and the name, so there are a lot of things that may make you feel emotionally attached to it.
FLATOW: One quick question from Jay in Cincinnati. Hi, Jay, quickly.
JAY (Caller): I was just wondering, I like to sing sometimes. I feel more connected - better well being after I sing a song I love. Could I be getting a similar effect from singing as you're talking about from listening to happy music?
Dr. MILLER: I think so. I think that if it brings you - if it gives you that sense of euphoria, again I think it's an emotional effect...
FLATOW: All right. Doctor Miller, we've run out of time. I want to thank you very much. Michael Miller, doctor of preventive cardiology in University of Maryland Medical School. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.
Dr. MILLER: Thank you.
FLATOW: We're going to switch topics, talk - bring in Jane Goodall. If you would like to talk to Jane Goodall, stay on the line. We'll have a long conversation with her. Stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.