Do you get goosebumps when you enjoy your favorite songs?
Sometimes music can have the power to suddenly and emotionally strike us – in similar ways to food and sexual intimacy. It can make our hearts beat faster, our arms break out in goosebumps and our minds go blank.
There is a less well-known French word for this phenomenal emotion: frisson (free-sawn). The dictionary definition is a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill. Some people have dubbed it a ‘skin orgasm’, a blunt testimony to just how strong a force it can be.
But how and why does frisson happen?
Research on how many people experience frisson has actually provided varied results – between 55-86% are reported to experience it. In their continued search for answers, scientists have found that frisson occurs as an emotional reaction to something unexpected in our environment. It could be a sudden change in volume, a beautiful harmony or a high note – anything that hits the listener by surprise in a positive way can give that ‘chill’ that causes goosebumps.
The general scientific theory behind goosebumps is that they helped our ancestor’s survival instincts by keeping themselves warm through a layer of heat retained under the hairs. Our bodies have less need for this heat now, with the innovation of all kinds of warm clothes we have today. But a clear example of this is illustrated when we experience a sudden change of temperature and the hairs on our arms rise and fall accordingly. This sensation may have been rewired to react to other stimuli like beautiful nature or scenery.
Scientists have also learned that listening to pleasurable music releases a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine, which is associated with tangible pleasures. In fact, even the anticipation of something pleasurable (i.e. music, drugs and food) induces dopamine release. This may be the key to understanding why music, which has no bearing on survival instincts, can induce such a strong reaction.
Researchers from McGill University in Montreal conducted an experiment on volunteers. They filtered 217 people based on the criteria that they experience ‘chills’ consistently, to the same piece of music, regardless of environment or multiple listening. They used two different machines – a PET scan and an fMRI scan. At one time they played music that the volunteer highly enjoyed, and the other music they were neutral about.
The main goal of the study was to measure the release of dopamine when the participants were feeling their highest emotional response to the music. They did this by marking when the participants felt a shiver down their spine, which is the main response while listening to favourite music. This frisson helped to determine the exact point when the volunteers felt maximum pleasure.
The data from the two scans was analysed and showed the dopamine transmission to be consistently higher when the participants listened to the music they enjoyed – up to 9% higher.
Moreover, another study found that people who are more likely to get goosebumps while listening to music had a personality trait called openness to experience.
“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,” the Conversation reports.
While scientists and researchers are still in pursuit of understanding the fascination that is frisson, it is already made clear that music is undeniably linked deeply within our emotional cores.