Exposing the Weird Pleasure of Aesthetic Chills

The surprising science of spine-tingling art

Photo: Kevin Jarrett/Flickr, source

I was folding laundry and listening to, of all things, the Bourne Supremacy soundtrack when it happened. Suddenly, my hands got damp, my heart sped up and my breath came faster, a shiver ran down my spine, and a goofy, slightly teary smile came unbidden to my face. I looked around to see whether anyone in the laundromat had noticed, but mercifully, they were all in their own worlds.

What was it, you ask? Something psychology and neuroscience researchers call an “aesthetic chill” — a peak emotional experience triggered by moving music, a powerful film scene, or an evocative verse of poetry, and often accompanied by a shiver or goosebumps. If you suspected something different, you’re not entirely off-base: one of the earliest researchers of the phenomenon, Avram Goldstein, wrote that some of his test subjects “noted a certain similarity of [aesthetic chills] to orgasm, but with many reservations concerning quality and intensity.” [1]

Although data on this are limited, it seems that many, but not all, people can remember experiencing an aesthetic chill — some as often as once or twice a week. [1] Experiments in the lab show that when undergoing a chill, a person exhibits many of the signs of a so-called sympathetic response — the same increase in heart rate, breathing rate, and sweating that, for example, are measured by a lie detector test and show that a person is agitated or emotionally aroused. [2–4] Some studies also find that a person’s body temperature literally drops during a chill [5], although others do not detect a consistent difference [2]. Additionally, in about 40% of cases, aesthetic chills are accompanied by goosebumps on the arms — something that scientists can track with a special camera they lovingly call a “goosecam.” [6,7]

Study participants agree that aesthetic chills are intensely pleasurable, but what exactly sets them off? Researchers have been trying to figure out what it is about certain movies, poems, and musical pieces that gets our spine tingling — in a good way.

A Recipe for Aesthetic Chills

Movies

To find out what kind of movie scenes elicit chills, Danish scientists Felix Schoeller and Leonid Perlovsky surveyed 60 international students at the University of Copenhagen. [8] After analyzing the chill-evoking scenes mentioned by the students, the researchers concluded that chills mainly occur during crucial plot moments, often in the third act of a film, particularly during drama and adventure films. Chill-causing scenes typically involve a major change in the relations between characters, such as a separation of two characters by death or a reunion of key characters after many trials. Another common trigger of chills are scenes depicting acts of heroism and/or self-sacrifice. Strong acting is part of the recipe, too: viewers are more likely to experience chills when they see a powerful change in a character’s emotions. In addition, most chill-causing scenes are accompanied by music, which, as we will see, can be a powerful trigger of chills in itself. [8] Summing up these findings, it seems that comedies and documentaries won’t get your spine tingling, but war movies and underdog stories just might, provided that the acting is solid.

Poetry

Of course, movies usually have a plot, while poems — not so much. What is it about poems that can give even poetry-shy people the shivers? A group of researchers in Germany found that even people who never read poetry at home will often get chills from listening to a professional poetry reading. [8] According to their study, chills tend to occur toward the end of a poem, or at the end of a stanza or line — at least, this is the case for German poetry. We are also more likely to get chills when the lines of a poem address another person or even a personified force such as Mother Nature. [7] Just as with film, it seems that we respond to poetry that depicts touching personal relationships.

Music

Of all the artforms, music has received by far the most scientific attention for its ability to evoke chills. Researchers have found that music of all genres, from classical and jazz to rock, folk, and psychedelic trance music, can evoke chills, but each individual’s triggers are based on their unique preferences. [5] One person’s exquisite pleasure is another’s snooze-fest. Pinning down chill-causing music is not easy: volunteers have used all sorts of adjectives, from “happy,” “inspired,” and “energetic” to “tense,” “sad,” and “amused” to describe the dominant feelings evoked by their chills music. Indeed, one of the few emotions that is not compatible with aesthetic chills is feeling calm. [6] The more intense the emotions — whether happy or sad — that a person experiences during a piece of music, the more numerous and prolonged are their chills likely to be. [4] Elusive as chills caused by music may seem, they are not completely unpredictable: many people consistently have chills at the same spot every time they listen to a particular piece of music. [2,5]

Art: Ellen Orseck/Flickr, source

Do-it-yourself Chills

To get your own dose of aesthetic chills, you can try sampling some of the movies and music that have triggered chills in volunteers during controlled experiments. Plenty of movies contain heart-rending scenes of separation, reunion, and self-sacrifice, but you can check out Schoeller and Perlovsky’s list of chill-eliciting films, which they compiled from the responses of the students they surveyed, for some inspiration. [8] Of course, to get a chill, you must be genuinely moved by the scene and convinced by the acting, so not everything on this list will work for you. Likewise, music preferences are highly individual, but a good place to start may be popular pieces that have evoked chills in study participants. One such study yielded a detailed list, available on the website of the scientific journal PLoS ONE in this Word document, including exact times in each piece when volunteers reported feeling chills. [5] Or, if you happen to speak German, you can try the many poems which elicited chills in German speakers in another experiment (on page 15 of this Word document hosted by the US National Library of Medicine). [7]

Personally, this famous scene from the 1984 film Amadeus, containing both a critical plot point and an incredible music score, usually does it for me. This seems especially fitting since the scene depicts the main character, composer Antonio Salieri, himself experiencing aesthetic chills as he sight-reads the music of his rival, Mozart.

But what if you’ve never experienced an aesthetic chill, and the list above hasn’t helped? Although the reasons for this are unclear, psychologists have found that people who frequently experience chills to music tend to be more extroverted. [6] You probably have a good idea of whether you are an introvert or extrovert, but if not, you can take this quick-and-dirty quiz from introversion expert Susan Cain. If you fall closer to the introvert end of the spectrum, it may be more difficult for you to experience aesthetic chills. Interestingly, a brain imaging study also found that people who frequently experience chills to music exhibit some differences in brain anatomy compared to people who rarely or never get music-triggered chills. [3] Specifically, chill-prone people have larger connections between the areas of the brain where sounds are processed and areas of the brain responsible for emotional and social processing. [3] In other words, some people’s brains seem to be wired to more directly link the music they hear to emotions and relationships.

Your Brain on Art

So what are these chills-triggering artforms doing to our brains that we find so pleasurable? Several research groups have tackled this question by asking subjects to listen to music (or poetry) while viewing their brain activity more-or-less in real time.

Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr, source

Neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University were the first to devise a clever method of teasing out brain activity that occurs only during aesthetic chills. [2] What their research revealed is that music that evokes chills turns on some of the same parts of the brain that are activated, for example, when someone who is addicted to cocaine gets a dose of the drug. [9] In fact, some parts of the brain that are activated by chills music are also turned on by any pleasurable activity, like eating and sex. [2] Furthermore, some parts of the brain that are activated during chills produce the body’s natural versions of opium: endorphins, which give us a high after exercising, and enkephalin, which has powerful pain-killing properties. On the other hand, brain areas associated with negative emotions like fear are actually less active during chills music than during neutral music. Not surprisingly, chills music also activates brain areas that are responsible for attention and arousal — the kind that makes our hearts race and our palms sweat. [2]

Following up on these findings, Robert Zatorre and a group of colleagues tracked the release of dopamine in a part of the brain called the striatum while people listened to their favorite music. [10] You may have heard of dopamine as the brain’s pleasure or reward signal, but more accurately, it is a signal that marks when something unexpectedly good happens (conversely, dopamine also drops when something unexpectedly bad happens). Many previous studies have found that dopamine release in the striatum spikes during receipt of food, money, and other unexpected pleasures. Zatorre and colleagues found that when people experience music-evoked chills, there is a spike in dopamine release in the striatum. [10] The authors speculated that leading up to these moments of peak pleasure, the listeners’ brains might be anticipating the resolution of certain musical phrases. Musicians often thwart our expectations and build up anticipation by inserting unexpected notes or slowing the tempo. When the resolution finally comes, it is both unexpected and satisfying. Perhaps this is an important part of the recipe for triggering aesthetic chills.

Since music can give our brains such a high, it’s no wonder that we seek it out again and again. But while basic pleasures like food and sex clearly benefit our survival as a species, what could be the biological use of music and poetry? Scientists can only speculate. One possibility is that these artforms play a role in forging social bonds, which have been crucial in our species’ ability to survive and thrive. [7,8] Or perhaps when we watch movies about heroic quests, our brains are practicing for a day when we might go on such a quest ourselves. Or maybe music for our brains is like popping bubble wrap. There is no clear reason for it, but it sure feels good.


References

[1] Goldstein, A. (1980). Thrills in response to music and other stimuli. Physiological Psychology 8(1): 126–129

[2] Blood, A.J. and Zatorre, R.J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 98(20): 11818–11823

[3] Sachs, M.E. et al. (2016). Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11(6): 884–91. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw009

[4] Mori, K. and Iwanaga, M. (2017). Two types of peak emotional responses to music: The psychophysiology of chills and tears. Scientific Reports 7: 46063. doi: 10.1038/srep46063

[5] Salimpoor, V.N. et al. (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007487

[6] Sumpf, M. et al. (2015). Effects of aesthetic chills on a cardiac signature of emotionality. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0130117. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130117

[7] Wassiliwizky, E. et al. (2017). The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 12(8): 1229–1240. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx069

[8] Schoeller, F. and Perlovsky, L. (2016). Aesthetic chills: Knowledge-acquisition, meaning-making, and aesthetic emotions. Frontiers in Psychology 7: 1093. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01093

[9] Breiter, H. C. et al. (1997). Acute effects of cocaine on human brain activity and emotion. Neuron 19(3): 591–611

[10] Salimpoor, V.N. et al. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14(12): 257–264