CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Why Does Music Give You Chills?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

When your playlist strikes all the right chords, your body can go on a physiological joyride. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your body temperature rises. Blood redirects to your legs. Your cerebellum—mission control for body movement—becomes more active. Your brain flushes with dopamine and a tingly chill whisks down your back.

About 50 percent of people get chills when listening to music. Research shows that’s because music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.

Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next. (Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have. Making good predictions is essential for survival.)

But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.

Gray Areas

But there are competing theories. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, discovered that sad music triggers chills more often than happy music. He argues that a melancholy tune activates an ancient, chill-inducing mechanism—a distress response our ancestors felt when separated from family. When a ballad makes us feel nostalgic or wistful, that evolutionary design kicks into gear.

What’s interesting about Panksepp’s theory, though, is that chills don’t sadden most people. The experience is overwhelmingly positive. Recent research shows that sad music actually evokes positive emotions—sadness experienced through art is more pleasant than the sadness you experience from a bad day at the office.  

And this may hint at another theory. The amygdala, which processes your emotions, responds uniquely to music. A somber tune may activate a fear response in the amygdala, making your hair stand on end. When that happens, your brain quickly reviews whether there’s any real danger. When it realizes there’s nothing to worry about, that fear response becomes positive. The fear subsides but the chill remains.

Anything Goes

You can feel chills from any genre, whether it’s Mozart, Madonna, tango, or techno. It’s the structure—not the style—that counts. Goosebumps most often occur when something unexpected happens: A new instrument enters, the form shifts, the volume suddenly dims. It’s all about the element of surprise.

Well, maybe.

The most powerful chills may occur when you know what’s coming next. When our expectations are being met, the nucleus accumbens becomes more active. This ties back to that dopamine-inducing guessing game our brain likes to play. As a result, being familiar can enhance the thrill of the chill. (Perhaps that’s why 90 percent of musicians report feeling chills.)

Your personality matters, too. Scientists at UNC Greensboro found that people who are more open to new experiences are more likely to feel a quiver down their spine (possibly because open individuals are more likely to play instruments). Meanwhile, researchers in Germany found that people who felt chills were less likely to be thrill seekers, but were more reward-driven.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
iStock
iStock

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios