Dr. Universe: Why does music give us chills? -Nicole, 11, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Nicole,

It turns out that the experience of getting chills when we listen to music actually has a scientific name: frisson. That’s what I found out when I met up with Washington State University brain scientist Steve Simasko.

Simasko said he also experienced frisson last year when the moon passed in front of the sun and he saw the total solar eclipse. That made me realize we not only get the chills when we experience music, but also when we experience other kinds of art or wonders in nature.

It isn’t exactly easy to measure frisson, but Simasko said we can still make a few speculations about it based on what we know about the brain.

When we take in music we are using our limbic system. This is a system which helps us process emotions and memories. In the middle of the brain is the amygdala, which also plays a big part in processing emotions.

altThis emotional system helps us navigate the world. When you experience different emotions, sometimes a physical sensation comes along with it. Fear might give you sweaty palms, a racing heart, and desire to run away from something. This kind of response is helpful for survival.

We also have other kinds of responses. When you get nervous maybe you experience the sensation of butterflies in your stomach. This triggers a release of adrenaline in the body. That left me wondering: Why is frisson tied to this emotional system in our brain?

Simasko explained that human emotions are closely tied to the social part of people’s lives. Sound can actually be an important part of our social life from a very young age. Mothers often sing to their babies, and the babies often coo back. It is part of human bonding.

Emotions are not just important for survival, but also understanding norms, or the way things usually work in a group. Music is also tied closely to our culture—it’s something that we can use to connect and we can share with each other.

If someone grew up listening to opera in China, maybe they get goosebumps when they hear it as an adult. Maybe you live in another part of the world and don’t listen to Chinese opera. It might not have as strong as a connection to you and those around you. But maybe there is a different kind of music that reminds you of memories with your family and friends. Can you think of a kind of music that gives you the chills?

While music is an important part of people’s lives, the truth is, we still don’t know everything about why it gives us the chills. But we do know that a lot of people experience frisson. Perhaps we will learn more about it one day, but until then, keep asking great questions– and turn up the music.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe