Episode 24: The Science Behind the Lyrics, “Throw-Back Classics and Love”

In this episode, listen to Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham discuss the science behind the lyrics of a timeless classic “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”, while bringing up the fascinating neuroscience of falling in love, how love sickness and obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders are related, and the effect songs can have on our brains.

Image of Vinyl Record by Lee Campbell.

The song, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” was released in 1985, by the British group Dead or Alive. It peaked at number one on the charts, upon release, for two weeks, and charted again in 2006. The song covers the topic of infatuation with lyrics like “You spin me right round” — But what is the science behind these songs and falling in love and why do so many songs talk about this subject?

A study released by Syracuse University in the United States on the topic of love found that it only takes 1/5 of a second to “fall in love”. This is due to a release of chemicals in the brain that can cause euphoria, like Dopamine, and is comparable to that of the fight-or-flight response.

Dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and euphoria, is a very important neurotransmitter within our bodies, especially within the brain and GI tract. Dopamine is a chemical pre-cursor (as seen in the image below) to both Noradrenaline and Adrenaline, the hormones associated with the “fight or flight” response.

Excessive dopamine levels can lead to mania and schizophrenia like symptoms, whereas low levels can result in symptoms similar to that of Parkinson’s.

Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, 2009.

Have you ever heard of love-sickness?

Generally, lovesickness refers to a set of negative feelings or effects a person might experience when deeply in love or during the absence of a loved one, or even due to unrequited love. Author and clinical psychiatrist, Frank Tallis, has completed research on obsessive compulsive disorders and lovesickness, and his findings suggest that lovesickness occurs when a person is deeply in love and should be taken more seriously by medical professionals. Love-sickness, according to his research, can often be mistaken or result in a mis-diagnosis of other illnesses, such as mood disorders or OCD.

Dr. Tallis has noted a list of common symptoms of lovesickness, as follows: mania, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, crying, nausea, insomnia and fatigue, lack of concentration, changes in appetite and eating, stress (which can result in elevated blood pressure and other symptoms), psychosomatic physical symptoms, dizziness, confusion, neck pain, intrusive thoughts, and mood swings. Wow, that is a long list!

Many of these symptoms can be confused for that of OCD, an often-debilitating illness that results in a particular pattern of thoughts and behaviours, not limited to compulsive actions or behaviours, fixations, or intrusive thoughts. This can cause immense distress and anxiety, or even physical injury, such as in the case of skin-picking related obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Research has been conducted at the University of Piza, in Italy, indicating that when people fall in love and become “lovesick”, their serotonin levels can sometimes fall to those comparable of a person living with OCD, which is significantly lower than a normal value.

Serotonin, just like dopamine, is a very important neurotransmitter within the human body and it sometimes referred to as the “happy hormone”. Serotonin acts at 5-HT receptors, that can be found throughout the body, such as in the brain, platelets, and the GI-tract. It can also mediate appetite and mood balance.

Photo of Heart by Jude Beck.

So, why are there so many songs about love?

It has been estimated that there are more than 100 million record songs about the topic of love, ranging from songs about new infatuations, breakups, devotion, and forgiveness. Songs related to heartbreak, however, seem to be the most popular within the genre, whether that be Whitney Houston’s hit song “I Will Always Love You”, or newer hits like “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye.

One potential explanation is that it could be that because heartbreak is so widely experienced and is universal, meaning we can all relate to this type of music. Psychotherapist Mark O’Neil has noted that music allows us to experience collective heartbreaks, feelings of separation and loss in a safe and contained way, and that it can help us cope in a similar way that exposure therapy can be used to help those with PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety related disorder that is caused by stressful, frightening or distressful events. A person with PTSD can experience incredibly stressful flashbacks or memories, and can experience anxiety, irritability, mood changes like depression or mania, panic attacks, or even guilt. There are many other common symptoms like insomnia and difficulties concentrating, as well.

Mark O’Neil has noted that by recalling a painful or traumatic event, like heartbreak, you can help your brain process the memory, which can help in a similar manner to exposure therapy.

Songs about heartbreak can result in changes in Dopamine and Oxytocin levels in our body, and can allow us to experience emotional changes.

Dopamine, being a largely excitatory neurotransmitter that is involved in the brain’s reward pathway, can cause a euphoric “high” feeling. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is a transmitter that can help regulate stress and anxiety. Oxytocin release is also related to childbirth and breastfeeding. It is released when mothers hug their new-born children and allows for bonding to occur. These chemical responses in our body are why these songs, in particular, can be very powerful and moving.

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Confused about any of the terms from this article?

OCD — A clinical disorder that can be debilitating and stressful to those who experience it, characterised by obsessions (like intrusive thoughts, doubts, or concerns) and compulsions. To learn more about OCD, check out OCD Action UK.

Psychosomatic Symptoms— Physical symptoms that may result from emotions, stress, mental illness, etc. The symptoms are quite real, but may not be attributable to a specific physical cause or origin. For example, anxiety can result in stomach pain and nausea.

An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.