Did you ever get the chills when listening to your favorite song? Goosebumps when looking at a painting? Then you are probably in the two-thirds of the population that experiences frisson, or aesthetic chills. Mitchell Colver, writing for The Conversation, took a look at just what causes this reaction—also known as "skin orgasm"—and what purpose it might serve.
"Some scientists have suggested that goosebumps are an evolutionary holdover from our early (hairier) ancestors," writes Colver, "who kept themselves warm through an endothermic layer of heat that they retained immediately beneath the hairs of their skin."
Today, we have less need for keeping warm, but the goose-bumps remain and are triggered by other stimuli, such as unexpected harmonies, sudden changes in volume, or the moving entrance of a soloist. Colver says this is because they violate listeners' expectations—in a good way.
Colver, a PhD student in education at Utah University, conducted a study along with professor Amani El-Alayli, at Eastern Washington University, to find out how this happens. Participants were wired up to sensors that measured the changes of electrical resistance in their skin when they became physiologically aroused. They then listened to several pieces of music known to elicit frisson, including, but not limited to, the first two minutes and 11 seconds of J. S. Bach’s St. John’s Passion: Part 1 – Herr, unser Herrscher, and the first 53 seconds of Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing At All (which, I can confirm from a brief test being carried out as I write, works great as a frisson-ifier).
Participants were also asked to press a button when they felt the frisson. By comparing the known aspects of the music, the data from the sensors, and the information from the button presses, Colver and El-Alayli were "for the first time, able to draw some unique conclusions about why frisson might be happening more often for some listeners than for others."
The key? Your personality. Participants also underwent a personality test, and those who experienced the most frisson also scored high on a personality trait called "openness to experience."
"Studies have shown that people who possess this trait have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life," he writes.
While connections have been made previously between frisson and openness to experience, Colver is the first to show that it is not just the emotional response to the music that causes the frisson, but the way these aesthetes experience it that makes the difference:
In contrast, the results of our study show 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.
These findings indicate that folks who "intellectually immerse themselves" in the music, rather than passively listen, are more likely to experience frisson, and to experience it more intensely.
If you're ready to test this out, then clear a half hour or so from your schedule and either cue up a playlist of recommendations, or head over to this Reddit thread, where you'll find an almost endless list of music, videos, and other forms of media that will give you the chills, and make your hairs stand on end.