You’re at a concert and hear a thrilling or moving musical snippet, perhaps a particularly soulful bit of vocals or a combination of instruments that seem to mimic a truth of the universe. You’re in a dark theater and watch a heartwarming bit of acting on the screen or stage that deftly displays complex emotions or touching reality. You’re reading insightful verse or prose that reveals a bit of the world you didn’t know existed. You’re in a museum and stumble upon a painting or photograph of high mastery that perfectly encapsulates a feeling, a place, or a moment. You’re listening to a human orate on a matter that connects to `you deeply. You’re in nature and you round a corner to encounter a majestic peak, a stunning lake, or a copse of ancient trees.

A sensation arises in your lower back. Your skin starts to tingle, radiating upward through your shoulders. Perhaps goosebumps arise on your arms. You shiver. You might not know it, but your pupils might have become dilated.

You’ve just experienced a phenomenon called frisson. Other technical terms include aesthetic chills or psychogenic shivers. Outside stimuli just sent “shivers up your spine.”

Piloerection - aka goosebumps - photo by Ildar Sagdejev

The word frisson is French for “shiver.” This occurrence is a psychophysiological response to rewarding stimuli, a passing feeling of pleasure that ripples through our bodies. Frisson often produces the attributes listed above, which also have technical names: paresthesia (skin tingling/chills), piloerection (goosebumps), and mydriasis (pupil dilation). The descriptor of “psychophysiological” is particularly apt to frisson, as it’s a mixture of two scientific disciplines. Most of us are familiar with psychology; physiology refers to the matter and processes of our bodies. Mix the two and we get the intersection between the brain and a body’s response to stimuli.

When we experience spine shivers, we garner an overall positive feeling, which is psychological, in addition to the tangible reactions. Studies have indicated that frisson is the result of the reward system and the sympathetic nervous system. The reward system is a neural circuit responsible for “incentive salience,” a process that produces desires, motivations, and cravings. The sympathetic nervous system runs your “fight or flight” response and maintains homeostasis in your body.

How could a process responsible for fight or flight translate into a positive experience for the mind and body? Research into the types of stimuli might provide a bit of insight. When experimenting with the effects of music on the brain and body, scientists discovered that aural stimulation that did not meet the expectations of a listener was effective at creating frisson. Translation: when we hear something new that we like, our spines might tingle. Changes in volume or rhythm might cause frisson, as might oddities in melody or harmony, such as appoggiaturas (adding a non-chord note to a melody that is later resolved to the regular notes) or modulations. This form of hearing something new could explain a couple of interesting musical universals. Most humans form their view of seminal musical types at relatively young ages, in the pre-teen or teenage years. The older one becomes, the less likely one is to revolutionize one’s soundscape. Perhaps frisson can help to explain this phenomenon: our brains mold around new sounds. As one ages, one’s ears have heard most of the possibilities within a musical genre, meaning new experiences are fewer. At the same time, live performances of music with which we are already familiar can still create frisson, as the performance might contain flourishes or subtleties we do not expect to hear.

The author's eyes, one normal and one dilated

This notion of newness seems to translate to the other avenues of frisson, as well. The first time one sees Niagara Falls or the wormhole section of 2001: A Space Odyssey could easily produce the sensation. Each human’s response to an input will differ. No artistic or beauty tradition will affect everyone the same way. This statement can be translated to individuals and societies. Musical traditions (often homogenized to Western and Eastern traditions, though other substrates exist) condition one’s musical palate and can, therefore, condition how one experiences novelty. The same can be said for the physical arts of film or painting. Each person also seems to have a unique set of outdoor beauty standards. Mt. Everest might stir tingles in me, whereas a rolling ocean might elicit the feeling for you, and baby animals might do it for someone else.

The phenomenon is not purely subjective or ethereal, however. Studies demonstrated our bodies are physically altered, at least temporarily, by frisson. The effect heightens electrodermal activity – skin conductance – which is a process governed by the sympathetic nervous system. Further, the higher the activation of the sympathetic system, the higher the feeling of frisson. Spots in the brain called hedonic hotspots are triggered during frisson, as well, areas that produce pleasure cognition. Another study showed that frisson decreases during the implementation of a drug called naloxone, which is an opioid receptor antagonist. This finding suggests that frisson could produce natural opioid peptides, which occurs during other pleasurable happenings.

Since a variety of inputs can cause frisson in one person but not another, researchers have a lot to discover about this incredible phenomenon. Music philosopher and composer Leonard Mayer opined that music’s ability to conjure strong emotion rises from its ability to break expectations. This notion can apply to all things of beauty. We could apply frisson to the adage of “whatever floats your boat,” making it “find whatever tingles your spine.” Whether it’s dance, film, music, or mountains, feed your reward system and sympathetic nerve system with the resplendence of the universe.

Further Reading and Exploration

What Getting Chills from Music Says About Your Brain – Discovery

The Shivers of Knowledge – Félix Schoeller/École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

Thrills, chills, frissons, and skin orgasms: toward an integrative model of transcendent psychophysiological experiences in music – Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui/National Library of Medicine

Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion – Anne J. Blood* and Robert J. Zatorre/National Library of Medicine

Sweet anticipation: music and the psychology of expectation – David Brian Huron

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