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Why Some People Get ‘Skin-Gasms’ While Listening To Music

You know that feeling when you’re listening to a song and you suddenly feel a chill run up your spine or down your arms? It typically comes during a dramatic shift in music, but some people also feel it while looking at an engaging piece of artwork, watching a particularly emotional scene in a movie, or having physical contact with another person.

This experience is called “frisson,” which in French means “aesthetic chills” and is also known as “skin-gasms,” or goosebumps. It’s the feeling you get when a sudden wave of pleasure runs through you as a result of these artistic experiences, though studies have shown that only about two-thirds of the population are able to experience it.

While the details of this phenomenon are still under research, scientists have traced the origins of frisson to how humans emotionally react to unexpected stimuli in an environment. The reactions happen mostly in music when there are unexpected harmonies, sudden changes in volume, or in the entrance of a particularly moving solo. The change violates the listeners’ expectations, in a positive way, ultimately triggering a frisson reaction.

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So why do these thrills cause such chills? Some scientists suggest that goosebumps are an evolutionary holdover from our earlier ancestors, the hairier ones, who used an endothermic layer of heat retained beneath the hairs of their skin to keep warm. Goosebumps were the result of a rapid change in temperature, but haven’t phased out of our evolutionary trajectory since the invention of clothing. Perhaps it is starting to decline, though, as frisson is only prevalent to about 55-86% of the population.

So who are the lucky ones? What types of people are able to experience these “skin-gasms”? Scientists at the Eastern Washington University set out to find out. After testing the cognitive immersion of several people listening to a variety of different songs, known to contain thrilling moments, and asking them to complete personality tests, their research concluded that listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called “Openness to Experience.”

“This graph shows the reactions of one listener in the lab. The peaks of each line represent moments when the participant was particularly cognitively or emotionally aroused by the music. In this case, each of these peaks of excitement coincided with the participant reporting experiencing frisson in reaction to the music. This participant scored high on a personality trait called ‘Openness to Experience’.”

Studies have shown that people who possess “Openness to Experience” have “unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life,” explains social psychologist Mitchell Colver. Some aspects of this trait are inherently emotional and others are cognitive, so the combination makes for an imaginative empathizer with great intellectual curiosity and appreciation of beauty.

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Their research found that listeners were experiencing frisson as a result of “a deeply emotional reaction they were having to the music.” Contrastingly, the results also showed that “it’s the cognitive components of ‘Openness to Experience’ – such as making mental predictions about how the music is going to unfold or engaging in musical imagery (a way of processing music that combines listening with daydreaming) – that are associated with frisson to a greater degree than the emotional components.” This conclusion indicates that “those who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.” 

The findings are now published in the journal Psychology of Music and contributes to the forever-building database of knowledge we have concerning music and the human connection. We are grateful for the precious moments music provides, and the scientific studies as to why we have certain reactions to such further proves why we Live For Live Music.

Join fellow frisson-loving Reddit users in this page entirely dedicated to frisson-causing media, and enjoy this “Light” from Phish at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in 2012, which Robert Randolph once told us really got him “caught up in the Phish moment.”

[via Science Alert]