I was standing in line for some coffee. The music playing over the speakers registered in my brain: The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Mick’s voice trails off for a second, a few plinks echo on the guitar, the snare rustles … and then that chorus kicks in. There they are: goosebumps.
Don’t get me wrong! I like “Wild Horses!” – I think it’s a good song, pretty in its simplicity; but I have no particular emotional ties to it, no heartfelt memories associated with it, no strong connection to the message. So why do I get goosebumps every time I hear this song?
Honestly, I get goosebumps – or aesthetic chills – regularly while listening to (what I consider) good, moving music. Studies show that over half of the population experiences this, as well. Why is that? And more curiously, how can it happen when there is no emotional connection to the song?
I did some research, and apparently, emotional connection isn’t the only reason music can give us – well, many of us – goosebumps.
What Are Regular Chills?
Regular, run-of-the mill chills:
- Occur when the small muscles attached to our hair follicles contract, usually after a stimulus to the nervous system like cold or fear.
- Are an adaptation that provides more insulation and modifies body temperature.
- Have evolved in some mammals (e.g., cats and dogs) as a secondary “social warning” function to indicate danger.
What Are Aesthetic Chills?
Aesthetic chills – also knows as frisson (French for “shiver”), musical chills, or (grossly, if you ask me) a skin orgasm:
- Are a psycho-physiological response to auditory or visual stimuli.
- Create a mental state perceived by the experiencer to be positive (it doesn’t have to be a joyful feeling, it can be that “good scary” feeling, for example).
- Induce skin-tingling or chills, and sometimes goosebumps and even pupil dilation.
- Are transient and typically only last a few seconds.
- Are experienced by 50-75% of people.
What Causes Aesthetic Chills?
Studies show that aesthetic chills are:
- Associated with listening to music, though some people report them when looking at art or watching a movie.
- A result of the neurotransmitter dopamine flooding the brain.
- Caused by violations of music expectancy (e.g., if the rhythm, melody, or harmony suddenly goes against your expectations; loud, very high or low frequencies, or quick variations in sound; quick changes in the atmosphere of a song) which arouse the autonomic nervous system.
- Caused by perceived emotional intensity through the phenomenon of emotional contagion (or empathy).
- More likely to occur when there is a memory-based emotional connection to the piece.
- Able to be enhanced – and are more likely to occur – with high amplitudes and cooler temperatures.
What Does It Mean to Experience Aesthetic Chills?
Research suggests that those experiencing aesthetic chills while listening to music may:
- Have brains that are wired differently than those who do not.
- Have more nerve fibers connecting the auditory cortex (the part of the brain that processes sound and has strong links to the parts of the brain that monitor emotions) to their anterior insular cortex (a region involved in processing feelings). The connectivity between these parts of the brain allows music to have a profound emotional response.
- Be more open to experience (meaning, you’d score high in “openness to experience” in the Big Five Personality Test).
- Be more intellectually connected to music (rather than emotionally connected to it) as their tendency to analyze, deconstruct, and explore the piece while it’s playing leads to pleasure when something unexpected occurs.
More studies are needed to really understand aesthetic chills.
Two big mysteries remains:
- Why does this connection in our brains lead to chills – something that is typically related to low temperatures and fear?
- Does this increased connectivity in the brain occur naturally, or is it something that can be developed over time?
One big opportunity remains: These studies (and more) show that music affects emotional regulation. How can we utilize this to create more stability and peacefulness within ourselves and our communities?
Learn More About Aesthetic Chills
Listen to Matthew Sachs, PhD talk about recent research findings related to how brain activity differs between those who experience aesthetic chills and those who don’t.