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If you react this way to music, your brain could be special.



If you react this way to music, your brain could be special. 49



If music gives you goosebumps, according to scientists at the University of Southern California, you might have a “higher-order cognition” than your peers, and you might even be able to feel emotions greater, and with more intensity.

Breaking down the study

The 2016 study, published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal, provided “the first evidence for a neural basis of individual differences in sensory access to the reward system,” and that white matter connectivity, meaning that of the inner brain within the grey matter, facilitates sensory processing in the superior temporal gyrus, the site of the auditory association cortex. The implication here is that “emotional and social processing [in these] areas explain individual differences in reward sensitivity to music.”

The study consisted of 20 students, 10 of which were self-ascribed music fans, 10 of which were not. The students’ brains were scanned to then confirm that those who identified as fans of music experienced goosebumps when listening to a song of their choice. Judging by brain scans, these students had brains that reacted in a “heightened manner” to the music. As the volume increased, these students had an increase of activity in “neurological fibers linking their auditory cortex to the part of the brain that processes emotions.” This is known by scholars as “frisson.”

The phenomenon of frisson has been highly researched, but laymen might not exactly know what it means. The word frisson is known generally as a synonym for a “thrill,” however in neuroscience, it has a more particular meaning. Frisson is the physiological and psychological sensation that one experiences when one feels extremely connected to music. Some researchers even call frisson a “skin orgasm,” because the neural pathways activated are so similar.

These ”transcendent, psychophysiological moments of musical experiences” were tracked by researchers at McGill University, and linked to “brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal.” These regions include the “ventral striatum, midbrain, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” which span the topography of the entire brain.

These areas of the brain are also activated when humans are experiencing a rush of pleasure, such as with food, sex, or substance use – things that humans find motivating, arousing, and emotional. Frisson additionally provides autonomic nervous system arousal of all the motor skills we can’t control, like breathing and heart rate. The McGill study reports that frisson causes feelings like “increased heart rate, SCR, and respiratory depth,” the three primary pillars of ANS arousal.

How does this make you special?

As for how this makes some more special than others, it’s less about what frisson is, and more about who experiences frisson. Dr. Matthew Sachs, co-author of the 2016 USC research study on frisson, and the 2019 Presidential Scholar in Neuroscience at Columbia University believes that this study proves that those who experience frisson also feel emotions stronger in general. Because of the participants’ reactivity to “aesthetic stimuli,” their emotional reactivity was judged to be more intense and more frequent.

Some believe that this is due to the sensitivity of someone’s neural pathways and that someone can be hard-wired to experience frisson. Another theory is that these pathways are more often used, as the individual might generally be a more emotional person, so the neurons fire at a more rapid rate.

If the second theory is true, one can then train themselves to experience frisson if they don’t feel it naturally, just by granting themselves deeper access to their own emotions.