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Which one is more energizing: coffee or music?

Taking a deeper look at how the brain processes both.

Taking a deeper look at how the brain processes both

Can listening to music give you the same energy boost as drinking a cup of coffee? (Image from Getty Images/graphic by CBC)

Some people are naturally energetic; others need to get it from an outside source. Coffee and music are two of the myriad ways to get energized, whether it's a morning boost or an afternoon pick-me-up. But is one more effective than the other? 

There are currently no research studies that have looked at comparing the two specifically, but for us to get to the bottom of this answer we'll be analyzing the inner workings of our bodies. And while food and beverages often help create energy through the digestion process, this comparison between coffee and music — the latter being a non-digestible matter — will take a closer look at how our brains handle these elements.

Both caffeine and music access the pleasure and reward centres in our brains, helping release the neurotransmitter chemical known as dopamine. But the way they access and help release it are very different. 

Pump up the volume?

When you listen to music that you like or are familiar with, your brain will likely release dopamine, which will allow you to feel good and experience joy. The emphasis here is on listening to music that you like, though. The flip side of that is, if you hear music you don't like or are challenged by, according to some researchers it can trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

One would think that the tempo and beats per minute of a musical composition would also play a factor in this, as many might think to play upbeat or faster tunes while exercising. But Joyce Chen, an associate professor at the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, says that's not necessarily the case.

"I think it's the way that the music is construed, to set up expectations in your brain," she argues. "Generally, the idea for the dopamine release hypothesis is that there's this buildup of expectation. 

"Most of us listen to music and so you passively absorb or process the rules of music — the relationship between pitches, whether music is syncopated or not, the timing of the musical notes — and through this history of listening, you've built up this repertoire in your brain and you are able to build up expectations of what's going to happen next. So when these expectations are met, that's when it's rewarding and it releases dopamine."

By that theory, music doesn't have to be accelerated to get your brain revved up. In fact, Chen notes that classical composers like Beethoven create the kind of music that gives her goosebumps, one of the signs that dopamine is coursing through your central nervous system.  

One more cup of coffee

Just like music, caffeine also unlocks dopamine in the brain but its consumption and absorption into the bloodstream makes it a much more noticeable energizer than music. Whereas music simply releases the natural amount of dopamine, coffee or any substance containing caffeine increases the production of dopamine

Part of its effects are tied to receptors in our brains that are taught to receive a compound called adenosine. Adenosine builds up in the brain whenever we're awake and it acts as a central nervous system depressant, promoting drowsiness. The caffeine molecule is very similar in shape and makeup to adenosine, making it the "perfect imposter," as Science Insider calls it. 

What that means is, when caffeine is consumed, its molecules disrupt adenosine cells and bind to its receptors, successfully blocking the feeling of tiredness by replacing it with a dopamine-triggering rush, as well as adrenaline, which can ramp up the heart rate. Its trickery, though, has its downsides. 

With time, caffeine cells will detach from the adenosine receptors and after six hours of consuming the caffeine, only half the effects will be felt, leaving adenosine to come back in and make a person feel fatigued. Music's effects are much more short-term by comparison. "It's generally pretty immediate," Chen says, referring to music's dopamine effect. "As soon as you stop getting those chills or goosebumps, the dopamine goes back to baseline and normalizes again." (It's unclear what kind of effects long stretches of music listening would have.)

 

Over time though, as ASAP Science notes, constant intake of caffeine can cause the brain to create more adenosine receptors, therefore needing more caffeine in order to achieve the same level of wakefulness. Conversely, more adenosine will find its way to those receptors when you're not drinking caffeine, making the absence, or withdrawal, much more lethargic and tiring. This is why caffeine is deemed addictive to many; after all, it's a compound that is similar in structure to hard drugs like cocaine. Coffee is simply much milder in its effects. 

So is there a winner?

It may seem clear that caffeine is the winner in this battle of the energizers, but there's a caveat: not everyone processes these things the same way. For music, it depends on the type of music one is listening to; for caffeine, some people may have a negative reaction to drinking a cup of coffee. It can increase blood pressure, cause heartburn or exaggerate symptoms of jitteriness for those who have anxiety or sleeping disorders. Over-caffeinating, too, can also lead to headaches, confusion, nausea, diarrhea and fertility issues. 

"If I had to advocate for one, I'd probably go for music," Chen jokes, knowing that ultimately it's a bit of an apples to oranges debate. She left us with another anecdote, though, one that's the opposite of her confessional love of classical music: "I have morning lectures usually, so if I'm staying up late, to energize myself, I'll play techno before my lectures to wake up!"

So next time you need a boost, what will you reach for: a cup of coffee or your music playlist?

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