If Listening To Music Gives You Chills You May Have A Unique Brain

Jimi Hendrix knows how to give what scientists call an 'eargasm'. Pre-1969 Swedish Press Image/Public Domain

Do you ever hear a drum beat, a harmony, or a tweak of a guitar string that makes a pleasant chill run up your spine? Well, in that case, you may have a special brain.

Alissa Der Sarkissian, a research assistant at the University of Southern California's (USC) Brain and Creativity Institute, noticed this strange feeling when listening to the song “Nude” by Radiohead. 

“I sort of feel that my breathing is going with the song, my heart is beating slower and I’m feeling just more aware of the song — both the emotions of the song and my body’s response to it,” she explained

As a student at Harvard University, Der Sarkissian investigated this phenomenon with her friend Matthew Sachs, a PhD student at USC. They wanted to see how brain activity differs between those who get chills in reaction to music and those who don’t.

The research, reported last year in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciencefound that people who get a shiver up their spine have more fibers connecting their auditory cortex to brain areas associated with emotional processing. This lets the two areas communicate better and means that people who get the chills experience intense emotions differently from those who don’t.

“The idea being that more fibers and increased efficiency between two regions mean that you have more efficient processing between them,” explained Sachs, who was the lead researcher.

It's a particularly weird phenomenon for neuroscientists and psychologists since there's no clear evolutionary advantage for appreciating music to this degree. However, the discovery could potentially explain this deeply philosophical matter.

“Together, the present results may inform scientific as well as philosophical theories on the evolutionary origins of human aesthetics, specifically of music: perhaps one of the reasons why music is a cross-culturally indispensable artifact is that it appeals directly through an auditory channel to emotional and social processing centers of the human brain,” the authors conclude in the study.

If you’re interested in the topic, make sure you check out the USC podcast (below) on this research and the strange blur between music, emotions, and the brain.

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