Many of us have experienced chills when listening to music, those weird, almost indescribable sensations sometimes likened to shivers down the spine. If you’re very meta, the line serving as this post’s title might even do it for you (but probably not—chills don’t tend to occur until later on in a song).
Despite our inability to describe chills in words, they are surprisingly easy to identify with the aid of neuroimaging. In a Nature Neuroscience study out this month, researchers at McGill with a history of interest in the topic take typical imaging work on music and chills one step further and describe not only the patterns of neural activation but also their time course.
The authors recruited individuals who reported feeling chills in response to certain pieces of music. They then had participants listen to these tracks interspersed with other participants’ chill-inspiring songs, which served nicely as a control. Results indicated that there was a distinct difference in neural activation patterns between anticipation of the chill-inducing moment and the chill itself. Specifically, during the 15 seconds leading up to the chill, there was significant BOLD response in the dorsal striatum, indicating dopamine release in this region. In contrast, during the chill itself, the effect shifted to the ventral striatum.
These patterns bear a striking resemblance to anticipatory and consummatory responses related to more tangible rewards, such as food, sex, and addictive drugs. The present results, then, beg the question of whether music functions in the same way as these more basic positive reinforcers, and, if so, why.
The dopaminergic reward system is thought to be deeply bound to basic evolutionary needs—it is to our species’ advantage to respond positively to food and crave more of it, for instance, but why music? The authors of this article cite the universal importance of music in cultural traditions as corroborating evidence that this art form may fill some basic evolutionary need, but this need has yet to be uncovered. In the meantime, I’m anticipating more work from the McGill team that may shed some light on the function of this poorly understood sensation.