What do music's chills reveal about your brain?

What causes over 55% of people to experience chills while listening to music? Let's delve into the scientific explanation behind this fascinating phenomenon.

 55% of the population experienced a sensation while listening to music (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
55% of the population experienced a sensation while listening to music
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Over the years, humanity has made remarkable strides in unraveling the complexities of the human brain and other bodily systems. Yet, even in today's advanced age, the profound impact of music on the brain continues to mystify experts.

Most pleasures we derive from life serve specific survival purposes – food sustains us, sex perpetuates our species, and our sweet cravings store energy for future use in times of scarcity.

However, when it comes to music and its profound emotional effects, experts grapple with an intriguing question: why does it hold such significance? Music doesn't satisfy hunger, ensure procreation, or store energy, yet it wields an emotional influence equal to, if not greater than, these life-sustaining activities.

In the quest to understand music's potent impact on the human body, researchers worldwide have recently turned their attention to a particular phenomenon – the "chills" that surge through our bodies when we listen to emotionally stirring melodies, whether sad, exhilarating, or empowering. Previously considered relatively rare, current estimates suggest that over 55% of the population has experienced this sensation at least once in their lives while listening to music that stirs their emotions.

EEG devices uncover the mechanism behind the sensation
EEG devices uncover the mechanism behind the sensation

In a fascinating 2020 study, researchers used EEG devices to uncover the mechanism behind the sensation of "shivering" experienced when listening to emotionally charged music. They found that this sensation is linked to the activation of "theta waves" in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region tied to emotional processing.

Music also triggers the release of dopamine, enhancing pleasure.

These findings build upon prior research showing music's ability to activate brain areas associated with pleasure, motivation, and emotional connections. The researchers highlighted that despite lacking direct survival value, music continues to have a profound impact on us, urging further investigation into this intriguing phenomenon.

Music doesn't guarantee survival, but it certainly fosters thriving

The 2020 study not only delved into music's impact on emotional processing but also ventured into its effects on other brain regions. This exploration led to the intriguing discovery that the "chills" phenomenon coincided with unusual activity in two other brain areas closely tied to motor control and the interpretation of non-verbal communication. The authors postulated that these findings might suggest a two-way reward response deep within the brain, influencing it in multifaceted ways.

Thibault Chabin, the lead researcher from the University of Burgundy in France, discussed these findings in an interview with Inverse magazine.

"Music can enhance our well-being, even if it doesn't directly contribute to our survival," he said.

Chabin proposed a connection between music's profound impact and the influence of "theta waves" on brain function. Previous studies have demonstrated that when the brain enters this state, individuals perform better in memory-related tasks and exhibit improved emotional intelligence. Hence, it could be a factor that has historically facilitated human connection, memory consolidation, and the sharing of experiences, much like music continues to do today.

What remains undeniable is that music has always been an integral part of the human experience. It resonates in the lives of remote Amazonian tribes that have never encountered modern society and, of course, in our own diverse cultures and styles. Researchers aspire to uncover the concealed mechanisms that underlie music's profound effect on the brain. Until then, we can all appreciate that this effect exists and benefits us in ways we may not fully comprehend.

Indeed, studies have consistently shown that listening to music can enhance mental well-being and boost brain activity. One surprising study on the subject even revealed that music can alleviate anxiety and depression while strengthening the immune system.

Kathleen M. Howland, a music therapy lecturer at Berklee College of Music, emphasized in an interview with Very Well Mind magazine, that "there are numerous tools available for improving health, but music elicits an immediate and intuitive impact that can be applied anywhere and anytime. When facing stress, anxiety, or uncertainty, music becomes a potent tool with documented effectiveness in scientific literature. Just three to five minutes of listening can yield these beneficial effects."