Imagine yourself lying in your bed, headphones in, just taking a break from the stresses of the outside world. You’re listening to your favorite song of all time – the song that just seems to completely take you away from all your current surroundings. What do you feel? Do you get the chills? Do you feel some inexplicable connection to the music, as if the rhythm of your body matches up to the rhythm of the song you are listening to? Does the music make your heart beat faster, or does it make you feel noticeably sadder, happier, or more excited? If you feel any of these sensations, then it could mean that your brain might be more unique than you think!
According to a study conducted by Matthew Sachs, a Ph.D. student from the University of Southern California, people who feel intense emotions while listening to music, specifically emotions leading to physical reactions such as getting the chills or shivers, have structural differences in their brain. These differences account for the unique reactions that they experience (1).
In this study, 20 students each listened to three to five pieces of self-selected music. From there, the researchers asked the students if they felt chills as they listened. The researchers found that ten of the students felt shivers while listening to the music, while the other half of students admitted to feeling no shivers at all.
To determine if neurostructural differences between the participants contributed to these results, Sachs and his team also took MRI scans of all of their participants’ brains while they listened to their chosen pieces of music. After analyzing those brain scans, Sachs’ team found that the ten students who claimed to feel shivers “have a higher volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, and therefore, the two areas communicate better” (2).
The volume of neuronal fibres is a crucial observation in this study because these fibres are made up of the connections and synapses that the brain uses to send messages between its different regions. With more andstronger synapses, the neurons within these two regions can fire action potentials and send messages to each other at a much quicker rate.
Because the ten students had more connections between the auditory and the emotional areas of the brain, their auditory regions were able to send messages to the emotional part of the brain more frequently and efficiently. This eventually led to their chills, which were a physical response to the intense emotions they felt as a result of the increased activity between the auditory and emotional regions of their brains.
So the next time you’re listening to your favorite music, take the time to observe whether you get the chills or not. And if you do, thank your brain for allowing you to experience something that not many others can experience!
Clay, Joanna. (2017, February 23). “If You Get the Chills From Music, You May Have a Unique
Brain.” NeuroscienceNews. <http://neurosciencenews.com/music-chills-neuroscience-6167/>.
Ellis, Robert, Sachs, Matthew, et al. (2016). Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic
responses to music, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 6, Pages 884–891, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw009.