Musical Ecstasy and Piloerection

Julie Douglas

In the 1970s cleric and sociologist Andrew Greeley conducted a national survey of 1,467 people who claimed to have had mystical experiences. He found that the ecstatic events were triggered by one of the following: Prayer (48 percent), childbirth (20 percent), quiet reflection (42 percent), lovemaking (18 percent), beauties of nature (45 percent) and music (49 percent). [Austin 454]

You'll notice that chatting didn't make the list. But the cousin of spoken language, music, did. Such is the power of a melody floating on air.

On the face of things it would appear that music has no intrinsic value. It doesn't provide us with food or shelter or the other big driver, sex. And yet it's universal to the human experience -- all cultures groove to it in one way or another.

Music, it turns out, is also one of the quickest ways to hack the mind, access memories, synch up our physical and mental states and change our moods. Which makes sense when you consider that it acts on 10 different areas of the brain - from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex.


But what about that ecstatic state that you sometimes enter when listening to a song, the one that gives you a piloerection? I'm talking about goosebumps here. And along with it the release of dopamine, the neurostransmitter that helps regulate (among other things) pleasure.

A 2011 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience by Valerie Salimpoor, et. al., used a combination of PET and fMRI to get to the bottom of why and when music elicits chills in people. *

Imagine all the parts of your brain assessing a piece of music. The amygdala is processing an emotional response, in concert with your nucleus accumbens. Your hippocampus is sorting through any memories that the tune elicits. And your visual and motor cortex are getting in on the game, perhaps flashing back to a performer playing the violin, or even yourself playing an instrument.


But it may be all about anticipation when it comes to gooseflesh and music.

In the study Salimpoor found that two distinct neural circuits were at play. The dorsal striatum -- a region associated with higher mental functions, like expectations and predictions -- showed significant dopamine signaling during the anticipatory period of a song, about 15 seconds before the emotional peak of the ditty.

But the second the music delivered the peak emotional moment the dopamine hounds were released in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with emotion (the same area that becomes active with dopamine release during cocaine use).

That turned out to be the moment listeners felt chills running down their spines -- a kind of physiological byproduct of the striatum sighing with dopamine release satisfaction. Salimpoor thinks that music could be gaming the reward system, with arrangements and lyrics titillating our expectations, creating a story that we're following emotionally.

So we know that concrete things like, food, sex and drugs can bring on the dopamine good times. But now we know that something as abstract as vibrating molecules arranged just so can leave us feeling sweaty-palmed, intensely excited and decidedly happy. Without nary a side effect.

More reading: "Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music"

*Salimpoor found that among the 217 participants' musical preferences, one piece of music stood out again and again for inducing chills: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.