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Feeling Halloween chills? Spooky shivers? That frisson or 'skin orgasm' is all in your brain

The couple on-screen clutch and embrace, but the music that drifts over them is eerie, uneasy.

Alone in a dark theater, you feel a chill race up your spine.

Walking home after a late night, you hear footsteps behind you. And just as you notice the sound, the footsteps quicken. The hair on your forearms stands up on end.

It’s goosebump season, that pre-Halloween period that promises something sweet, laced with something scary. Some people wait all year for those thrills — others don’t have to.

The phenomenon of “chills,” provoked not by cold but by emotion or aesthetics (or a combination of both) is a sought-after commodity, both by people who seek out triggers for the feeling, known as frisson, and by scientists who study what’s going on in our brains when we get that tingle. Some people, it turns out, feel frisson, which has also been called a “skin orgasm,” more easily than others. You might sit through the most chilling movie and never feel a thing — or get serious shivers from “A Star Is Born.”

The truth is, frisson is weird and ephemeral, and often dependent on the emotions we attach to what we see and hear. Music is one of the most common frisson triggers, and the one that is most often studied by scientists. Yet the piece of music that will cause frisson in any given research participant is highly individual.

“We have people bring in a piece of music that gives them chills,” says Matthew Sachs, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California who has studied the phenomenon. Even with hand-picked music, Sachs says, reproducing frisson in the lab isn’t simple: Reactions to music can change over time or be stifled by distraction or surroundings. “It’s very tricky, and there are so many factors at play.”


Can you feel the frission?

These three videos are notorious for provoking frisson, the phenomenon of chills brought on, for some, by high pitched notes and certain musical moments. Click each link to watch the video.

- Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper from ‘A Star is Born’

- James Stewart and Kim Novak from ‘Vertigo’

- Erik Esenvalds ‘Only in Sleep’ performed by the Trinity College Choir


Science has nailed down a few things about frisson, however. Like that the sound of a high note often triggers it. “There’s something about the high-pitched sound,” Sachs says, “that sort of shrill sound that is the fear trigger. When you hear it in music it’s beautiful because it’s surrounded by the background of the music, but the high-pitched voice still triggers that sort of warning — almost like a scream, right? So we know that people tend to get chills from high-pitched notes.”

Sachs’ favorite example of this is the backing track from the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter,” in which backup singer Merry Clayton wails “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”

“I’d say about 80 percent of people get chills from that one,” he says.

The initial frisson response in the brain is, research shows, a leftover evolutionary response to danger. “Biologically,” says Sachs, “the experience of chills or hair standing on end is usually a response to something surprising or unexpected. So the reaction to that unexpected sound prepares you to respond to something that might be threatening or threaten your ability to survive.”

It’s possible that your hair stands on end in an attempt to make your own physical presence more aggressive or threatening — picture another Halloween classic, the frightened cat with arched back and raised hackles.

When the cause of that fear response is aesthetic, however, the brain shifts direction. After the initial shock, cognitive systems start reassessing the level of threat — and rapidly decide no action is needed. The release from potential threat causes a soothing dose of dopamine to wash over the brain. “The feeling of the enjoyment,” Sachs says, “is that feeling of the reappraisal response.”

After hearing a piece of music several times, the initial surprise response is sometimes replaced with an anticipatory shock and the expectation that pleasure will follow immediately after. “Some pieces of music will always give a person chills, no matter how many times they hear it,” says Sachs. If you find the right piece, you can have a reliable source of frisson at your fingertips. Which is why more than 170,000 people have posted potential frisson triggers to the frisson Reddit group. “It’s pleasure-seeking,” says Sachs.

The fact that frisson is also tied to emotion, personality and imagination make it an even more highly charged, individual and elusive experience. “People will often bring in a piece of music (that causes frisson) and have a story about it,” says Sachs. “A lot of times it’s ‘This was playing at my friend’s funeral.’ But if you were playing Smash Mouth at the funeral, I don’t think you’d have the same reaction to that music. It probably wouldn’t cause chills. Emotion plays a big part, but the most universal triggers are a piece of music with the right sounds that is also attached to emotion.”

That explains highly touted frisson triggers such as Lady Gaga’s 2016 Super Bowl national anthem performance, which has been the darling of the frisson Reddit group.

Sachs’ research showed that the neural track between the auditory and pleasure centers of the brain was more robust in people who experience frisson versus people who do not, meaning that, if you are someone who gets the chills, the physical structure of your brain might enable that sensation. It also might help explain why music figures so prominently in discussions of frisson.

Tribune film critic Michael Phillips says that his chill-inducing movie moments, like an uneasy embrace in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” are usually triggered by the addition of music to the visual experience of film — in this case a gracefully menacing score by famed composer Bernard Herrmann.

Frisson has also been shown to be a marker for the personality trait known as openness to experience: If you get the chills from music, you are likely to have a higher level of the trait, which connotes enjoyment of new experiences but is also tied to things like imagination and creativity.

Imagination explains sentimental chills when hearing things like “Isn’t She Lovely” — it’s not so much the music, but imagining Stevie Wonder’s intense joy at the birth of his daughter that gets the frisson going.

The openness personality trait has gotten a lot of attention lately, as a trait more likely to be found among people who identify as liberals than those who identify as conservative. It’s also been shown to decrease with age, meaning that research subjects score higher in openness in their teens and 20s.

Could this suggest that liberals, or teenagers, have more frisson? Maybe, though research hasn’t revealed the answer. I did notice, however, that the most universal trigger offered up while reporting this story came from my nearly 17-year-old daughter, who suggested a version of Eriks Esenvalds’ “Only in Sleep” sung by the Trinity College Choir with a transcendently beautiful soloist. It got nearly everyone’s hair standing up on end.

Her 12-year-old brother and I played it, and stared at each other in shock. “It’s almost painful,” he said.

We’ve saved it in our Favorites — that’s one piece of frisson we won’t have to wait until Halloween for.

cdampier@chicagotribune.com

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