Music is a language that is shared by people around the world. It is an art that can relax your mind, relieve your stress, and cushion you from the harshness of reality for a while. Sometimes listening to music can cause chills. There are also moments when you can imagine scenes like a daydream. But the organic chills are difficult to fully explain.
Now, France-based neuroscientists at Frontiers in Neuroscience have published a study mapping the brain patterns that create the chills we get when we listen to music.
Researchers at the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besançon used the EEG or electroencephalography, a typical test to detect brain activity, to map responses to music.
They recruited 18 healthy adults who usually experience chills when hearing their favorite songs. All participants were medically examined and had normal hearing.
Participants were asked to listen to five pieces of wireless music, selected regardless of music style or trend, through wireless headphones. They also listened to three other pieces chosen by the experimenters. Participants can press an answer box to rate their level of emotional arousal (calming or exciting) and pleasure (positive or negative).
The listening sessions lasted approximately 15 minutes, including 30-second breaks between tracks. Three sessions were carried out with three different EEG systems. Those who experienced the chills were told to describe each event – whether it felt like goose bumps, thrills, hair standing on end, or tingling sensations. The results
Participants reported 305 chills or 16.9 average chills per person, each lasting an average of 8.75 seconds. Neuroscientists found no association between reported chills and characteristics of participants such as gender and age.
“The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with the EEG opens up opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within-groups. This is a good perspective for musical emotion research,” said PhD student Thibault Chabin, PhD in a press release.
When chills were reported, the researchers observed electrical activity in three regions of the brain, each associated with emotional processing, movement control, and musical appreciation.
The three regions work together to process the music and trigger the brain’s reward system to release dopamine, a hormone that provides pleasure and satisfaction. The hormone and the joyful anticipation of the favorite part of the song can lead to a cool experience. Surprisingly, the neuroscientists could not find any evidence of any biological benefit from listening to music.
However, Mr. Chabin said the results suggest an “ancestral function” of music – that we have developed the ability to anticipate the release of the pleasant dopamine.
Children and music
A previous study, also published in Frontier, discovered that children can improve their attention and memory through musical training. Forty children, aged 10 to 13, were recruited by researchers from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
Twenty played an instrument, had at least two years of lessons, practiced at least two hours a week, and played regularly in an orchestra or ensemble. The other 20 had no musical training other than what they received from the school curriculum. Participants were given a validated attention and working memory task.
The results showed no difference in children’s reaction time. But those who had a musical education showed better memories. The researchers said two different brain networks are likely to be improved through musical training. A network is involved in the working memory for speech and sound processing as well as for connections between sound and motor. The other network deals with mentally demanding tasks and goal orientations that are related to attention.
If your child shows an interest in music, there can be some benefits to having them play an instrument. But don’t cling to the idea that musical training will necessarily lead to better attention and working memory. More studies are needed to get clearer evidence.
Mental distress and music
Music doesn’t always lift the mind. Listening to music while feeling sad can make some people feel worse. A 2017 study showed two unique behaviors among sad listeners.
Those who have symptoms of depression and who have listened to sad music and talked about sad things may feel worse. This was more evident in younger people, which may reflect the association of music and social relationships in youth.
On the other hand, those who have depressive symptoms and listen to inspirational music in a group while discussing life and music probably felt fine.
Experts aren’t done investigating music chills yet. You still have to answer why music is an important part of our lives. Even with no direct biological benefit, they realize that listening to music is a rewarding experience for most people.
Ralph Chen is an enthusiast for medical topics and advanced technology.