Have you ever been listening to a song when all of a sudden, your heart skips a beat, the hairs on the backs of your arms stand up, and a piece of you feels as if it has taken flight? If so, you’re not alone. However, according to a new study, individuals who get “chills” when listening to beautiful music are biologically different. As a result, they may even be considered special.
Well first, let’s start with what we can call this anomaly ‘Frisson’. Frisson is experienced by approximately 2/3 of the world’s population and “is a sensation somewhat like shivering, and is typically expressed as an overwhelming emotional response.”
Mitchell Colver wrote about this fascinating bit of science on The Conversation.
In the piece he says, “Listening to emotionally moving music is the most common trigger of frisson, but some feel it while looking at beautiful artwork, watching a particularly moving scene in a movie, or having physical contact with another person.”
“We predicted that if a person were more cognitively immersed in a piece of music, then he or she might be more likely to experience frisson as a result of paying closer attention to the stimuli,” Colver wrote.
The researchers wanted to find out if certain personality types were more easily triggered to a frisson response than others.
To test this, they had participants wired up to a machine that measured how their skin responded to various pieces of music. The artists included Air Supply, Hans Zimmer, Chopin and a few others. According to the researchers, these songs were chosen because they contained at least one thrilling or climatic moment that would likely cause frisson.
The participants also completed a personality test, which Colver and his team used to determine an interesting fact: those who experienced frisson possessed a personality trait called “openness to experience.”
“Studies have shown that people who possess this trait have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life,” wrote Colver.
What’s more, is that Colver discovered it’s not solely the emotional side of this personality trait that causes a reaction to music- it’s the cognitive. For example, using your mind to imagine how a song will play out, or creating mental imagery during a song. It’s also a combination of these things and being pleasantly surprised when our expectations are exceeded.
To put it simply: People who completely immerse themselves in music on an intellectual level- those who do much more than merely ‘hear’ it- are more likely to experience the sensation of frisson.
The study was led by Matthew Sachs, a graduate student studying the effect of music on the brain at the University of Southern California. For the research, 20 students, 10 of who reported feeling chills while listening to their favourite songs and 10 whom did not, took part.
Quartz reports that the team of researchers took brain scans of both groups. The students, who reported the equivalent of “frission,” as it is known in the scientific community, were found to have a significantly higher number of neural connections between their auditory cortex, emotional processing centers, and prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher-order cognition, such as interpreting a song’s meaning.
Sachs himself admits the study was small and that the phenomenon is difficult to research. After all, is not unusual for people to get chills from certain songs because they have unique memories tied to them. To prove more conclusively that people who connect with music are slightly different from a biological perspective, Sachs is conducting follow-up research that involves examining the patterns of activity in people’s brains as they listen to music that induces Goosebumps. His hope is to understand more about what’s happening neurologically.
From an evolutionary standpoint, chills are a response to cold and danger. Said Sachs, “Our hair stands on end, and when we’re threatened, it makes us look larger.” Indeed, this is true. Certain sounds, such as high notes or falsettos, also peak human interest because they sound like a distress signal. On the other hand, when music is played, the brain goes to a “safe space” and jumps along a scale become pleasurable, rather than worrisome.
According to neuroscientist Jessica Grahn, who is studying music in neuroscience at Western University in Canada, people listen to music because it challenges them in similar ways going to a haunted house or a scary movie does. It provides entertainment and challenges evolutionary reactions.