Do you have the chills when you listen to music you like a lot? Does a sad tune give you goosebumps or even make you cry? I do and I actually thought it was the case for everyone, but it turns out it is not the case at all, a large part of the population do not experience this chilling effect.
Response to music can be visceral (heart racing, crying, goosebumps, lump in the throat) or more abstract (people are absorbed and in awe), but appreciation of music is most of the time a very rewarding experience, although not really explainable in term of evolutive advantage. A scientific study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience last year did focus on this strange chilling reaction and tried to examine why people are different at this level. what does it mean? The study entitled ‘Brain connectivity reflects human: aesthetic responses to music’ and lead by Matthew E. Sachs (a PhD student at USC0, Robert J. Ellis, Gottfried Schlaug and Psyche Loui, found out that this simple reaction may have some important meaning in how the brain is structured and is functioning.
After examining a large sample of people (237) and identifying the way these people respond to music using a few tests, they picked 10 individuals who consistently perceived chills to music and 10 others who never or rarely perceived chills to music. Different physiological factors (heart rate, skin conductance) were recorded while these subjects were listening to their favorite pieces of music and neutral pieces for control.
MRI Scanner images revealed that people who experienced chills possess stronger white matter connectivity between auditory association regions in the posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTG) and regions of the brain important for emotional and social processing (aIns and mPFC = medial prefrontal cortex). And this was independent from gender, ethnicity, IQ, language differences, musical training and personality. The study even revealed that the more frequently a person reported experiencing chills, the larger the volume of white matter connectivity among these three regions of the brain.
Based on other studies, the authors have also noted that higher white matter connectivity is correlated with high emotional empathy whereas lower white matter connectivity was observed in people with social-emotional impairments such as autism, meaning that these white matter connectivity has a deep impact on how the brain functions.
Thus, this higher amount of fibers (white matter) between the auditory cortex and the areas associated with emotional processing is the reason why individuals reaction differently to music, it’s not your fault if you don’t get goosebumps during this Radiohead song, you and me are just wired differently.
And it could be even go deeper: ‘People who get the chills have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions’, Sachs said. ‘Right now, that’s just applied to music because the study focused on the auditory cortex. But it could be studied in different ways down the line’, added Sachs.
We all experience aesthetics differently, and once again this study demonstrates there is no magical explanation for these differences, there is in fact a very materialistic answer to this, it’s all in the wiring.
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