USC PhD student Matthew Sachs published a study in 2016 investigating what causes this sensation. What he found was that people who experience frisson actually have structural differences in the brain.
Researchers have attributed frisson partly to how we as humans react to unexpected stimuli in our environment, especially when it comes to music. This can include music that contains unexpected harmonies or sudden changes in volume, for example.
The theory there is that the unexpected musical stimuli breaks listeners’ expectations or preconceived notions about the music. This manifests in a positive way, which is why the chills often feel so pleasant.
Goosebumps in general can be explained by an evolutionary need in our ancestors, who would develop them under a layer of hair when experiencing a sharp change in temperature. The goosebumps would serve to temporarily raise the hairs in order to generate warmth.
Humans don’t have much need anymore for goosebumps that help keep us warm since the invention of clothing, but researchers believe that this mechanism may have been rewired to produce aesthetic chills to stimuli that we find moving.
Additional studies have shown that a trait, known as “openness to experience” also contributes to the phenomenon. This refers to those who have exceptionally active imaginations and like to seek out new experiences.
Findings in Psychology of Music have also found that people who immerse themselves intellectually in the music they’re listening to as opposed to listening to it passively will experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.
And because there’s a subreddit for absolutely everything, of course there’s one dedicated to people sharing their favorite chills-inducing stimuli. Head over there if you’re in the mood to get goosebumps.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who experiences frisson, what causes it for you? Is it a classical piano piece? Or maybe it’s the harmonies from a Fleet Foxes song, or even an amazing painting that you saw at an art museum recently. Let us know in the comments!