Think back to a time you felt a response to a piece of music, or an image, or a movie scene — like, really felt it in your body, in a hair-stands-up, shiver-even-though-it-isn’t-cold kinda way. Maybe it’s the song that was playing when you met your first love, or it’s a photo that reminds you of someone you used to know and now miss. Maybe it’s just something really, really sad, and it’s tugging on your heartstrings even though it has no bearing whatsoever on your own life, beyond the fact that you, too, have been sad at some point.
As Mitchell Colver, currently an education Ph.D. candidate at Utah State University, recently wrote in The Conversation, that feeling is called frisson (though some scientists have called it “skin orgasms”). In part, it can be explained by the science of goose bumps: When mammals get chilly, the muscles around each hair follicle contract to help their body hair stand on end, creating a thicker layer to hold in heat. As we evolved, we lost most of the hair but kept the remnants of this mechanism; the muscles still work the same way, even if there’s no hair there to keep us warm. And zoologist George A. Bubenik has explained in Scientific American that goose bumps can also form when our bodies release adrenaline — a stress hormone that floods our system if we feel threatened, afraid, excited, or even if we’re just experiencing a rush of emotions.
But frisson is also more than just bumps on the skin; often, it also involves a full-body feeling that’s less visible and more difficult to define. A 1980 study, which used people’s descriptions about their experience with “thrills,” characterized the phenomenon as “a chill, shudder, tingling, or tickling,” usually starting in the upper back and neck and spreading out over the body.
While there’s no one firm number for how many people experience frisson, past studies have thrown out figures as low as 55 percent and as high as 86 percent — but researchers still aren’t sure why some people are more prone to it than others. New research, though, brings them closer to figuring it out: In a study published in the May issue of the journal Psychology of Music, Colver (formerly a researcher at Eastern Washington University) partnered with Eastern Washington psychology professor Amani El-Ayali to investigate whether certain personality traits made a difference.
For the study, the two researchers assembled a playlist of songs known to include at least one dramatic, frisson-inducing moment (including some that have been used in past research for precisely that reason). Try listening to the snippets they selected — the first 53 seconds of “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”; the first two minutes of “Oogway Ascends”; and the first two minutes and 11 seconds of Bach’s “Herr, Unser Herscherr” — and see whether you feel anything:
After taking personality tests, participants were hooked up to equipment that measured their physiological arousal through their skin; as they listened to the songs, they pressed a button each time they experienced frisson. Those who had the strongest frisson reactions, the researchers discovered, also scored highly on openness to experience, a personality trait that encompasses appreciation of beauty, and sensitivity to one’s own feelings. Specifically, the authors found that the people who experienced the most frisson had high scores in three sub-traits of openness to experience: openness to fantasy, openness to new ideas, and openness to new values.
This link wasn’t particularly new, Colver explained — a 2007 study found the same correlation between “aesthetic chills” and openness to experience — but the co-authors drew different conclusions about why it exists. Past research has suggested that frisson may be a matter of emotional degree, and that people who experience it are simply feeling the emotions of a song more strongly. But the specific personality sub-traits highlighted in this study, Colver wrote, are more cognitive than emotional, suggesting a qualitative difference rather than a quantitative one — that people prone to frisson, in other words, actually process the music differently.
“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,” he wrote. “Those who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.” That shudder of emotion, then, isn’t just a gut-feeling reaction to something wrenching or beautiful; it’s your thoughts rippling all the way up to the surface of your skin.