What Happens in the Brain When Music Causes Chills?

The brains of people who get chills when the right song comes on are wired differently than others

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Hoffnungsschimmer via Flickr CC

For some people it’s David Bowie. For others it’s Franz Liszt. But regardless of the genre, when the right chords combine, many people will get goose bumps or a chill up the spine.

Somewhere between a half to two-thirds of the population have this reaction, yet scientists have long debated why. Past research has shown that when experiencing "the chills," the neurotransmitter dopamine floods through the body. But a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience details what happens in the brain when the soprano hits the high note, reports Ian Sample for The Guardian.

These reactions are known as frissons—an aesthetic chill also sometimes called a “skin orgasm,” Mitchell Colver, doctoral student at Utah State University, writes for The Conversation. Though they are usually associated with listening to music, some can even get the willies while looking at art or watching a movie.

To investigate what happens in the brain during the chills, a group of researchers from Harvard and Wesleyan University selected ten people who claimed that they regularly experience a frisson while listening to music. He also selected ten subjects who never experienced the phenomenon.

The researchers then looked at the brains of the test subjects while they listened to chill-inducing music using a method called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which shows how well regions of the brain are interconnected, reports Sample. The choices ranged from Coldplay and Wagner to marching band music from the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps.

The researchers found that the brains of individuals who occasionally feel a chill while listening to music were wired differently than the control subjects. They had more nerve fibers connecting auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound, to their anterior insular cortex, a region involved in processing feelings. The auditory cortex also had strong links to parts of the brain that may monitor emotions.

So why do so many get the chills when the music is just right? “The chills is a sensation we get when we’re cold. It doesn’t really make sense that your hair would stand on end, or that you’d get these goosebumps in response to music,” Matthew Sachs, an author of the paper, tells Sample. “We think that the connectivity between the auditory cortex and these other regions is allowing music to have that profound emotional response in these people. It’s very hard to know whether or not this is learned over time, or whether these people naturally had more fibers. All we can say is there are differences that might explain the behavior we see.”

Colver, who has also studied the phenomenon, says that previous research shows that the ability to experience a frisson is related to a personality trait called Openness to Experience. But his research suggests that those who experience the chills while listening to music weren’t always those having a deep emotional connection. Instead, his study showed that people engaged in the music more intellectually, like trying to predict the melody or putting mental imagery to the music, were more likely to get a shiver when the music deviated from their expectations in a positive way.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the idea of discerning beauty from brain scans. Philip Ball writes for Nature News“Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.”

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