Shivers across the skin, trembling limbs, a fluttering heart: we’ve all experienced the electrifying sensations variously called “chills” or “frisson”. Some people even feel so aroused that researchers call the experience a “skin orgasm”.
- Music - Popular pieces that regularly induce "chills" include Adele's Someone Like You, Oasis's Wonderwall and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
- Evocative sounds - Everything from rustling leaves to fingernails on a blackboard can send shivers down your spine.
- Taste - Strong flavours trigger goosebumps and frisson in some subjects.
- Movies - The climax of a Hollywood blockbuster works for some. Others prefer meditative films of people making coffee or quietly knitting.
- Touch - A gentle, sensual massage seems to do the trick for many people.
As I recently explored for a BBC Future story, we most commonly associate these sensations with music. The best composers, it seems, cleverly play with the brain’s expectations, building up and releasing tension in a way that tickles our pleasure centres, triggering a powerful kick of dopamine. The result is a sensation of euphoria accompanied by strong bodily reactions, including those familiar goosebumps.
Once the article was published, some readers on Reddit asked me whether we can enjoy frisson or skin orgasms from other (non-sexual and non-musical) pursuits. So I dug through the scientific literature until I found a little-known paper from 2010, by Oliver Grewe and colleagues at the Hannover University of Music and Drama.
During their experiment, Grewe and colleagues exposed their participants to a range of stimulation – including songs, non-musical sounds like a baby laughing or leaves rustling, emotive pictures, different flavours – and even a gentle head massage. Along the way, the participants with equipment to test things like heart rate, breathing, and skin conductance, and also questioned them about their sensations. The measurements allowed them to then compare the responses with reports of musical frisson and to see just how closely they matched.
Even the sour taste of lemons gave 16 participants those familiar goosebumps that we normally associate with the height of musical pleasure.
It turned out that all the different classes of stimulation could bring about frisson to a greater or lesser degree. Even the sour taste of lemons – hardly the most appealing flavour to many people – gave 16 participants those familiar goosebumps that we normally associate with the height of musical pleasure. That may sound surprising, but chills are thought to come, in part, by stimulating the “sympathetic nervous system” that normally deals with threat. It may be for this reason that a discordant note in music can pleasantly startle us into a musical chill, and perhaps strong flavours also gently ramp up our automatic response to threat to just the right degree.
Somewhat surprisingly, pictures were the least evocative in this study – though it may just be that they require more of a back story. Later research allowed participants to pick their song or their favourite film scene before undergoing tests for frisson and chills, including measures of piloerection (goosebumps) and heart activity. Sure enough, both the music and the films triggered a characteristic shift in the heartbeat (which we may experience as that fluttering sensation) as well as shivers across the skin. Nor does it have to be a blockbuster; some people even report “autonomous sensory meridian responses” that seem to come from watching long, involved videos of others at work during painstakingly detailed tasks. (I never fail to enjoy a prolonged frisson whenever I see a barista carefully filling my coffee cup, for instance.)
That’s five different ways to trigger a frisson, if you include music, sounds, movies, food, and a sensual touch. There may be others. Indeed, 17 of the subjects in Grewe’s study could bring about a frisson simply by imagining a pleasant personal experience – a phenomenon the researchers call a “mind chill”.
Given that frisson are thought to bring a range of benefits – including raising our pain threshold and increasing altruism – that may be a skill worth cultivating. At the very least, the sweet tingle of a skin orgasm is one more reason to take a moment and appreciate life’s simplest pleasures.
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David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.