In this article:
- Frisson is defined as “a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear.” It is a psychological and physiological response that certain people experience when they hear music. However, only 55% of the human population is capable of experiencing frisson in response to music.
- In recent years, studies have mapped the neurological response that accompanies music-induced frisson. These studies have suggested that those with more developed and interconnected emotional processing centers and auditory cortexes are more likely to experience frisson from music.
- The experience of frisson may give us clues as to music’s role in the development of human society as well. Many believe that music played a pivotal role in societal bonding and mental healing. In fact, music still plays an important role in mental healthcare today.
Have you ever been driving in your car and sitting in your room and, suddenly, your favorite song comes on Spotify or Apple Music and your whole body becomes covered in goosebumps? A lump forms in your throat and you’re overwhelmed with a sense of elation that goes from the top of your head to the tips of your toes?
While you might assume that everyone has a certain song that makes them feel this way, you’d be wrong. In fact, only about 55% of the population has this type of reaction to music, and there’s a name for it: frisson.
Frisson is defined as “a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear.” However, frisson in relation to music specifically has been a hot subject of study in recent years. And these studies have had some fascinating implications for the relationship between music and the human brain.
Some scientists believe that our physiological response to music may be closely linked to the evolution of human society. Others believe that music has the power to calm the mind as well as possibly even boost the immune system and help treat conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s no wonder that music therapy has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of different afflictions.
In this article, we’ll dive into what exactly frisson is and the ways that music causes it. We’ll also look at the ways that our love of music may have been coded into our DNA and a vital tool for the development of human society.
What Is Frisson?
Also known as aesthetic chills or psychogenic shivers, frisson is a psychological response that occurs in response to certain rewarding stimuli, such as music, films, stories, or rituals. So, the phenomenon of frisson is certainly not exclusive to music.
Frisson includes both a psychological component (a feeling of pleasure) and physiological components (including goosebumps, pupil dilation, and paresthesia, an abnormal sensation of the skin). As a side note, since goosebumps can also be caused by the cold, listening to your favorite song or watching your favorite movie in a cold room may heighten your experience of frisson.
Many other factors can affect one’s experience of frisson and what may cause frisson in a particular individual. These factors can include your nationality, your culture, your past experiences, your training in a particular discipline (such as cinema or music), and many other things.
The Neuroscience of Frisson
As I mentioned, the phenomenon of frisson has been thoroughly studied around the world and these studies have produced interesting results. One such study conducted at the University of Southern California involved 20 participants who were asked to listen to several different songs and press a button whenever they felt a chill. Out of the 20 participants, they found that 10 reported responses consistent with frisson.
After giving all 20 participants MRI scans, the researchers discovered that those who reported a frisson response had a much higher volume of fibers connecting their auditory cortex to the areas of the brain that process emotion. They also found that their emotional processing centers were more developed in general. That means that these people who experienced frisson were more susceptible to experiencing extreme emotion, specifically, emotion spurred on by music.
Another similar study conducted by French neuroscientists yielded similar results. In their study, they had 18 participants (11 women and 7 men) listen to music with electrodes hooked up to their brains so that they could measure neural activity. While listening to the music, they asked the participants to continuously press one of four buttons corresponding with the intensity of their emotional experience: neutral, low pleasure, high pleasure, and chills.
The results showed that those who experienced chills from the music had a high level of theta activity in their brains, which is associated with memory, reward anticipation, and attention. These functions are vital to musical emotional processing. And the presence of high levels of theta activity may imply that music-induced frisson may be a learned response.
Music and Evolution
The aforementioned studies may indicate that our enjoyment of music (and the experience of frisson) may have played a role in evolution. It seems that certain brain centers involved in survival and motivation (such as sex, food, or money) are also activated in musical pleasure processing.
Specifically, music is known to enact a release of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone”), a chemical response that’s associated with emotional bonding. Thus, music may have played an instrumental role in forming social cohesion and interdependence.
In fact, the oldest-known musical instrument (often called the “Neanderthal flute”) is believed to be around 60,000 years old. It was made from the left thighbone of a young cave bear and had four pierced holes through which air could pass. As some believe that the human capacity for language developed around 50,000 years ago, it would seem that music has been an integral part of human society for almost as long as or perhaps even longer than spoken language.
It’s fairly clear that music plays an instrumental role in human evolution. However, we are still not exactly sure what that role is. However, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, stimuli that are helpful for survival will trigger pleasurable emotional responses. So, the fact that music is capable of triggering frisson implies that music must aid in survival somehow.
One theory is that music is, quite simply, soothing. And, when we are soothed, we are not in distress. Since we humans are known to burn more calories when we are in a state of distress, music may have played a significant role in preserving energy.
Music and Mental Health
As more and more studies about the relationship between music and the human brain are being published, the field of music therapy is also growing. Music has always played a role in calming the human mind, and it still does today. However, these days, music therapy is being utilized more and more in healthcare and educational settings.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, frisson is a two-part response: one part physiological and one part psychological. Considering that music is known to incite a pleasurable psychological response in many people, it’s no surprise that music would be used to treat people dealing with emotional health issues such as grief, anxiety, or depression.
On top of that, though, music therapy has also been proven to help people with rehabilitative needs as well, such as people who have had a stroke or a traumatic head injury or people who suffer from chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
It would seem that frisson is more than just a funny feeling you get when you hear your favorite jam, it’s a symptom of the power that music has to soothe and heal the human mind and body. So, if you’re ever feeling a bit depressed or anxious, turning on some music might just be exactly what the doctor ordered.