Why Do I Get Goosebumps When I Listen To Music
If you’re a fan of the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd, then you know what I mean. If not, here’s how it works for most people. Listening to songs from your favorite musical genre can trigger goose bumps on your skin. It happens more often than you think. About half of all listeners experience this phenomenon (known as “chill bumps”).
It’s true. In one study, researchers asked participants to listen to their preferred type of music while having electrodes attached to various parts of their scalp. The results showed that certain areas of the brain were active during specific genres of music. For example, the right hemisphere was activated during classical music; the left-hemisphere was associated with rock and pop. Other research has shown similar patterns between different types of music.
This is all very interesting — but why does it make you feel good? One possible answer comes from studies showing that the striatum plays a role in motivation, pleasure, and rewards. The striatum is also known as the “reward center” of the brain. This area appears to be activated when we are presented with something pleasurable such as food, sex, money, drugs, etc. And guess what else? Dopamine floods the striatum when we hear music. That’s right! Your favorite song might just be triggering your brain’s own version of cocaine rush.
Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do. We know that if given the choice, some people would rather eat a handful of M&Ms than have sex with their partner (or even watch porn). It turns out that these behaviors are linked to the release of dopamine. So it makes sense that music could stimulate the release of the chemical too.
So if music causes us physical reactions like other pleasurable stimuli, what exactly is happening inside our heads when we feel so good about the tunes? Let’s take a closer look at what happens when we listen to music, and whether there are any ways to prevent it.
The Science Behind Chills
When we listen to music, neurons fire in our auditory cortex. Neurons are specialized cells within the inner ear, which convert sound waves into electrical impulses. These signals travel along the cochlea, a long spiral structure filled with fluid, before being sent to the brain through the eighth cranial nerve. Once they arrive, the sounds are interpreted by the temporal lobe, located near the middle of each side of the frontal lobe. From there, the information is sent to the auditory cortex, where it is processed further.
In general, music activates the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas speech tends to activate the right hemisphere. However, scientists believe that the two processes differ in several important ways. Although both use language, music uses melody, rhythm, harmony and tempo to convey meaning. Speech, however, relies mostly on words and intonation to communicate emotion.
While listening to music, the brain receives messages from four main sources: sight, hearing, memory and feeling. Sight involves visual cues like notes written on sheet music or pictures of instruments displayed on a computer screen. Hearing refers to the actual sounds produced by musical instruments, singers, or human voices. Memory is triggered when we recall past experiences related to the music. Finally, feelings refer to emotions evoked by the music itself. Some examples include anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear, anxiety, anticipation, etc.
Because music uses sight, hearing, memory, and feelings simultaneously, it triggers multiple pathways in the brain. For example, if you remember seeing a concert poster that advertised a band playing nearby, the music will automatically prompt your brain to send signals to your motor cortex. This process requires the involvement of another region called the premotor cortex, which helps coordinate movement. Another reason why music gets under our skin is because it releases endorphins, hormones that help regulate pain and mood.
But why do we feel good when we listen to music? Why don’t we feel bad after we finish a great workout? Researchers say there are three reasons why listening to music gives us a high. First, it creates a positive mood, which makes us happier overall. Second, music offers social support and connection to others. Third, music provides a sense of community, helping us belong to a group.
Chills and the Brain Reward System
As mentioned above, studies show that music affects the brain the same way sex, gambling, and food do. But why do we feel so good when we listen to music? Is it just a placebo effect?
One theory suggests that music is perceived as rewarding because it activates the same neural circuit found in drug addicts. As described in a recent article published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists discovered that rats who self-administered morphine or nicotine had increased activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a small patch of tissue deep in the midsection of the brain stem. They also found that blocking VTA receptors prevented the animals from seeking out the substances.
We humans aren’t rats, but neuroscientist Dr. Karl Deisseroth says our VTA circuitry is very similar. He believes that the reward system stimulated by listening to music is the same as the one affected by addictive drugs. Since music doesn’t contain toxins or cause overdoses, it doesn’t harm anyone, unlike illegal narcotics.
Deisseroth points out that although he hasn’t done extensive testing himself, other scientists have confirmed his hypothesis using fMRI machines. According to them, music activates the VTA in much the same way that food does. Because the reward systems are identical, one researcher concluded that music is a natural alternative to drugs for those looking to quit smoking.
Another explanation focuses on evolution. Scientists propose that music evolved around the concept of tribalism. Tribalism is defined as the tendency to bond emotionally with members of one’s tribe. A tribe is usually a group of people sharing common interests, including culture, religion, ethnicity, race, occupation, hobbies, geographic location, etc. Humans who lived in tribes faced challenges that included finding enough water, shelter, food, safety, and mates.
Listening to music may be a mechanism used by the brain to keep track of time passing since a meal or snack was last consumed. Imagine living in a tribe without clocks or watches. Without a reliable method of keeping tabs on time, the entire society would quickly fall apart. By creating a map of the brain that associates certain activities with certain times, we can predict future events. This allows us to plan ahead and prepare accordingly.
Evolutionary psychologists speculate that the need for tribalism led humans to develop music, art, dance, storytelling, humor, theater, and other cultural activities. Consequently, we’ve become addicted to music and culture over the years.
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