Why Does Music Give You Chills?

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ThinkStock

When your playlist strikes all the right chords, your body can go on a physiological joyride. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your body temperature rises. Blood redirects to your legs. Your cerebellum—mission control for body movement—becomes more active. Your brain flushes with dopamine and a tingly chill whisks down your back.

About 50 percent of people get chills when listening to music. Research shows that’s because music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.

Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next. (Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have. Making good predictions is essential for survival.)

But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.

Gray Areas

But there are competing theories. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, discovered that sad music triggers chills more often than happy music. He argues that a melancholy tune activates an ancient, chill-inducing mechanism—a distress response our ancestors felt when separated from family. When a ballad makes us feel nostalgic or wistful, that evolutionary design kicks into gear.

What’s interesting about Panksepp’s theory, though, is that chills don’t sadden most people. The experience is overwhelmingly positive. Recent research shows that sad music actually evokes positive emotions—sadness experienced through art is more pleasant than the sadness you experience from a bad day at the office.  

And this may hint at another theory. The amygdala, which processes your emotions, responds uniquely to music. A somber tune may activate a fear response in the amygdala, making your hair stand on end. When that happens, your brain quickly reviews whether there’s any real danger. When it realizes there’s nothing to worry about, that fear response becomes positive. The fear subsides but the chill remains.

Anything Goes

You can feel chills from any genre, whether it’s Mozart, Madonna, tango, or techno. It’s the structure—not the style—that counts. Goosebumps most often occur when something unexpected happens: A new instrument enters, the form shifts, the volume suddenly dims. It’s all about the element of surprise.

Well, maybe.

The most powerful chills may occur when you know what’s coming next. When our expectations are being met, the nucleus accumbens becomes more active. This ties back to that dopamine-inducing guessing game our brain likes to play. As a result, being familiar can enhance the thrill of the chill. (Perhaps that’s why 90 percent of musicians report feeling chills.)

Your personality matters, too. Scientists at UNC Greensboro found that people who are more open to new experiences are more likely to feel a quiver down their spine (possibly because open individuals are more likely to play instruments). Meanwhile, researchers in Germany found that people who felt chills were less likely to be thrill seekers, but were more reward-driven.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

What Are Sugar Plums?

Marten Bjork, Unsplash
Marten Bjork, Unsplash

Thanks to The Nutcracker and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," sugar plums are a symbol of the holidays. But what are sugar plums, exactly? Like figgy pudding and yuletide, the phrase has become something people say (or sing) at Christmastime without knowing the original meaning. Before it was the subject of fairy dances and storybook dreams, a sugar plum was either a fruitless candy or a not-so-sweet euphemism.

According to The Atlantic, the sugar plums English-speakers ate from the 17th to the 19th century contained mostly sugar and no plums. They were made by pouring liquid sugar over a seed (usually a cardamom or caraway seed) or almond, allowing it to harden, and repeating the process. This candy-making technique was called panning, and it created layers of hard sugar shells. The final product was roughly the size and shape of a plum, which is how it came to be associated with the real fruit.

Before the days of candy factories, these confections could take several days to make. Their labor-intensive production made them a luxury good reserved for special occasions. This may explain how sugar plums got linked to the holidays, and why they were special enough to dance through children's heads on Christmas Eve.

The indulgent treat also became a synonym for anything desirable. This second meaning had taken on darker connotations by the 17th century. A 1608 definition from the Oxford English Dictionary describes a sugar plum as “something very pleasing or agreeable, esp. when given as a sop or bribe.” Having a "mouthful of sugar plums" wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. It meant you said sweet words that may have been insincere.

As true sugar plums have fallen out of fashion, demand for Christmas candy resembling the actual fruit has risen. You can now buy fancy candied plums and plum-flavored gummy candies for the holidays, but if you want something closer to the classic sugar plum, a Jordan almond is the more authentic choice.