We’ve all had goosebumps before – every single one of us (apart from maybe one or two anomalies of course). We know the drill – when we’re just a little too cold for comfort the little hairs on our body raise. It’s an instant indicator to those around you that you’re feeling cold, in the same vein that turning red is a clear sign that you’re embarrassed.
You may know some basic science behind why we get goosebumps in the first place – in order to trap heat between the little hairs. However, there are a number of other reasons why we get goosebumps, totally unrelated to temperature…
Personally, I used to think when people said things like, “I get goosebumps listening to [insert favorite artist] sing”, they meant it purely in a metaphorical sense, now I’m not so sure. That’s because recent research has uncovered strong evidence to prove that there are certain people who not only get goosebumps from listening to music they love, but also that this makes them extraordinarily special.
Matthew Sachs, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, ran the experiments at Harvard University. He explains why he decided to conduct the experiment:
“It stemmed from a deep interest in intense, profound emotional responses, in particular those that come from music. I’ve always been fascinated by how a collection of tones changing over time has the ability to evoke these very strong sensations.”
According to his findings, people who get goosebumps when listening to their favorite songs are unique in the sense that their bodies’ emotional responses function in a completely different way.
So, how did Sachs go about organizing his ambitious experiment? Well, he reached out to ordinary members of the public, and asked people who either always experienced a sense of euphoria when listening to a song they really loved or those who felt no such feeling, to volunteer.
The results of the experiment were very telling, particularly about those who experience profound physiological effects when listening to music…
Over 200 people were interested in taking part in the experiment, the first stage of which was to complete an online personality test. Part of the personality test was supposed to indicate whether or not the participants experienced music-related euphoria. Sachs then narrowed it down to 20 people, and made sure to select 10 people who said they got chills when listening to music and 10 people who have never experienced such a reaction.
In the next stage of the experiment, the participants had their entire bodies, including their brains, scanned while a range of different songs were played to them. This part of the experiment allowed Sachs to verify that he really had selected 10 people who experienced profound physical reactions to music and 10 people who didn’t.
The research participants were then given a more intense scan-through of their brains using what is known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging or DTI. This method allows researchers to detect the different connections in certain parts of the brain.
One of the main things that Sachs took note of was the way that three particular parts of the brains were connected, and how greatly this varied depending on whether the participant was in the “goosebumps group” or in the “non-goosebumps group”. Those in the former group had a reasonably larger number of nerve fibres which ran from the auditory cortex (which we need in order to hear) to the anterior insular cortex (which processes our emotions), and the medial prefrontal cortex (which monitors our emotional responses).
“The chills is a sensation we get when we’re cold. It doesn’t really make sense that your hair would stand on end, or that you’d get these goose bumps in response to music,” Sachs stated.
“We think that the connectivity between the auditory cortex and these other regions is allowing music to have that profound emotional response in these people,” he continued. “It’s very hard to know whether or not this is learned over time, or whether these people naturally had more fibers. All we can say is there are differences that might explain the behavior we see.”
Check out this video which explains, in greater detail, why we get these “skin orgasms”.
It’s incredibly beautiful that art forms such as music, poetry and literature can generate such powerful emotional responses in us that it even translates into visible physical signs on our body. However, the research isn’t entirely conclusive yet – we still have yet to find out whether this goosebumps phenomenon is a learned behavior or an innate trait.
I look forward to hearing any updates on the research!