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What Getting Chills from Music Says About Your Brain

By: Reuben Westmaas

You may have a very special kind of brain if music hits you at the core.

August 01, 2019

Music seems to have a primal hold on us, reaching the very core of what it means to be human and reminding us that we are all small town girls, living in lonely worlds. And when it finally hits that chorus, you know that you'll never stop believing. We have chills — do you have chills? If so, you might have a very special kind of brain.

A Sensory Superpower

As it turns out, getting chills from music is not as common as you might think. Researchers from USC released a study that suggests that only about 50 percent of people feel things like shivers, a lump in their throat, and goosebumps when they listen to music. What's more, those people might have very different brains than those who don't experience those feelings.

First, they gathered 20 people and had them listen to a selection of their favorite songs. Whenever they felt a chill, they pressed a button. All 20 were then given MRI scans — and the 10 that reported reactions were obvious standouts. Their brains turned out to have a much higher volume of fibers connecting their auditory cortex to the areas that process emotion.

More fibers mean that those two areas of the brain can communicate much more effectively. It also means that, because their emotional processing centers are beefier, those people are more able to experience extreme emotions.

A Feeling of Frisson

This study might shed a light on the causes of the phenomenon, but it's been well documented for years. Actually, it even has a name. The phenomenon of chills or goosebumps that come from a piece of music (or from any other aesthetic experience) is called frisson, and it's been one of the big mysteries of human nature since it was first described.

That's because even if we know the actual mechanism that causes frisson — a close connection to the emotional processing center — we don't know what purpose it could serve us. But other studies have suggested some potential benefits of this kind of behavior.

One report from 2007 found that individuals who experience frisson are more open to new experiences than others, and other studies described higher levels of creativity and intellectual curiosity. In other words, the appreciation of beauty is central to what makes us human, and frisson is just a super-charged version of that appreciation.

This article first appeared on Curiosity.com.

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