Have you ever listened to a song or watched a scene in a movie where you suddenly feel a chill run through your body, giving you goosebumps? This is a well-recognised phenomenon called frisson (“shiver” in French). Frisson is colloquially known as “the chills”, thrills, goosebumps, or “skin orgasm”.
Frisson is described as a rapid, intense wave of pleasure, accompanied by tingling and chills spreading through your skin. It is typically triggered by an unexpected, sudden change in the dynamic of a musical piece. This may include a change in loudness, pitch, melody, unexpected harmonies or an appoggiatura in the melody, where there is an accentuated note that does not fit in the chord, creating a clash. If a person is emotionally connected to the piece, such as having a fond memory associated with it, the intensity of frisson is heightened.
Scientifically speaking, frisson is the combination of the reward centre in your brain releasing dopamine, plus the activation of your autonomic nervous system. This results in pupil dilation, piloerection (goosebumps) and increased electrical conductance of your skin, similar to when you have an adrenaline rush.
It is likely the result of your brain being confused by an unexpected change from the predicted progression of the music, causing a strange blend between the pleasure of surprise and fear of the uncertain.
Not everyone experiences frisson. Studies show that around 55-85% of the population have felt frisson before. One study showed that those with the personality trait “openness to experience” have a higher chance of feeling frisson. These people tend to have more intense emotions, active imaginations and are intellectually curious. One possible explanation for why these characteristics allow for frisson is that you need to be in tune with your emotions and the present to appreciate the subtle but sudden dynamic changes that result in frisson.
The potential joy of feeling frisson is yet another benefit of being mindful of your emotions and the present.
(Here’s a video of something that gives me frisson every time I watch it.)