Close your eyes and try to remember the last time a piece of music made you come goosebumps. It is likely that at that time you also felt a shiver throughout the body, starting from the head and radiating down the spine.
An estimated 86% of the people experienced this feeling listening to a song, although some people are more prone than others to react this way. Why?
An ancestral heritage
To understand what happens in our bodies when we get goose skin, we must go back in time. In fact, the explanation is found in mammals. Researchers at Utah State University explain that when mammals feel cold, the muscles around each hair follicle shrink, so the hair stands on end. This way they create a layer even more thick that protects them from the cold and helps them warm up. Of course, with the passage of time we have lost most of the hair that covered our bodies, but kept this ancestral mechanism.
But the curious thing is that this mechanism not only is activated in response to cold, but even when adrenaline is released, a hormone associated with stress whose levels increase when we are in a dangerous situation. If we feel threatened, frightened or excited, adrenaline floods our system and we get goosebumps.
The brain processes music in a very special way
Music is a very special stimuli because has a direct impact on the oldest parts of our brain, just those related to the most basic emotions. Indeed, neuroscientists at McGill University have found that the amygdala responds particularly to music.
A sad and somber melody, for instance, can activate the amygdala fear response, triggering the consequent physiological reactions, such as we found ourselves in front of a real danger. In fact, we get often goosebumps when something unexpected happens in the melody, as the entry of a new instrument, when the notes are swinging or when the volume of the music increases. In some cases, the element of surprise is responsible for the thrill that runs through us and turns our skin into goosebumps.
But also a well-known piece of music can get us goose bumps. Obviously, in this case it’s not the surprise but the pleasure we feel when we hear the melody to give us the willies. In fact, it’s been discovered that music also stimulates the release of dopamine, which floods the striatum, a part of the brain associated with reward, motivation and addiction.
The strange thing is that the level of dopamine increases a few seconds before it comes the highlight of the melody, which means that our brain is anticipating what will happen, and enjoys it in advance.
Personality and sensitivity also matter
A study by psychologists at the University of North Carolina helps us understand why we get goose bumps when we listen to some songs. These researchers believe that beyond the ancestral and physiological mechanism which are at the base, the explanation lies also in our personality.
These psychologists created a playlist that included songs that tend to make us shudder, such as the first few seconds of the song “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” by Air Supply.
After having completed a personality test, the participants of this study were connected to a computer that measured their level of physiological arousal through the skin, while listening to the songs. In addition, they had to press a button every time they had a chill.
The researchers thus discovered that those who showed the most intense reactions had in common certain characteristics of personality. They were more open to experiences and new ideas, more emotionally sensitive, appreciated beauty and were more imaginative.
These psychologists are convinced that this is not simply a visceral response or an emotion to an agonizing stimulus or a pleasant one, but that this chill also has a cognitive counterpart, because, after all, are our thoughts that facilitate interpenetration.
In fact, these researchers believe that people who get excited listening to music and show signs of physiological arousal, perceive the world and process the stimuli differently. These people are more open to experiences and are able to get carried away with the music flowing, therefore react more intensely.
Salimpoor, V. N. et. Al. (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience; 14: 257–262.
Nusbaum, e. C. & Silvia, P. (2011) Shivers and Timbres: Personality and the Experience of Chills From Music. Social Psychological and Personality Science; 2(2): 199-204.
McCrae, R. r. (2007) Aesthetic Chills as a Universal Marker of Openness to Experience. Motivation and Emotion; 31(1): 5–11.
Blood, A. J. & Zatorre, R. J. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. PNAS;98(20): 11818–11823.