It’s a feeling many of us know well: that shiver down the back of your spine as your favourite song hits its crescendo, the hair standing on end on your arms as your breath shortens. It seems a simple thing, but apparently this visceral reaction to music may tell us something about the way our brains work.
The reaction described above isn’t something that happens to everyone, but as Consequence of Sound reports, a new study published by the Oxford Academic finds that people who experience strong physical reactions to music may be wired differently to those who only react to music internally, and may be open to experiencing a wider range of emotions.
Conducted by USC PhD student and musician Matthew Sachs, the study finds that people who are impacted by music in this way “have a higher volume of fibers that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas communicate better.”
The study was only quite small, working with two groups of 10 students, one of which reported feeling chills when listening to meaningful music, and the other which claimed it did not. By utilising brain scans of the two segments, researchers found that not only did the ‘shivers’ group experience more neural connections in the auditory cortex, responsible for processing our hearing, but they also experienced an increase in the emotional processing centers and the prefrontal cortex – the latter of which would be involved in thinking about the meaning behind the song, the former concerned with the emotional side.
For Sachs, the small study was only a first step in finding out more about if and how the phenomenon is linked to differences in emotional capacity, and “individual differences in sensory access”, with plans to continue the studies in the hopes of using the findings to treat depression.
“Depression causes an inability to experience pleasure of everyday things,” he tells Quartz in an interview about his findings. “You could use music with a therapist to explore feelings.”
Meanwhile, some of us around the office can be made to shiver by everything from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to DJ Sammy’s version of ‘Boys of Summer’, so we’d love to see some more studies to try and explain it all a little more.