A 2016 study published in the Oxford Academic discovered that people who experience goosebumps when listening to music are more in touch with their emotions. Besides leaving us questioning our emotional capacities (and binge-listening our entire music library), this research also left us wondering: Why do we get goosebumps when listening to music, anyway? What about when we’re scared, or cold, or even turned on? Here’s what we found out.
Why We Get Goosebumps When Listening to Music
There are two competing theories as to why we experience goosebumps when a playlist strikes all the right chords. The first, which is supported by research, suggests that a good song encourages dopamine (aka, the brain’s feel good chemical) to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain that controls our reward circuit. This dopamine rush produces “chills,” aka goosebumps. In other words, good music affects the brain similar to sex, drugs and junk food.
The second theory, which has to do with the fact that sad music triggers goosebumps more often than happy music, argues that a somber tune may activate a fear response in the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls our emotions) which in turn causes your hair to stand on end (more on that shortly). That fear response quickly turns into heavy relief (and goosebumps) when the brain analyzes the situation, and realizes you’re in no real danger—you’re just listening to a super sad tune.
Why We Get Goosebumps When We’re Scared
When startled, the brain releases a hormone called adrenaline, which stimulates tiny muscles to pull on the roots of our hairs, causing goosebumps to form. This reaction is argued to be a leftover from humanity’s ancient past: Our ancestors were hairy beasts, and goosebumps would have fluffed up all that hair, making them look larger (and more intimidating) to frightening attackers.
Why We Get Goosebumps When We’re Cold
Physiologically, we experience goosebumps when we’re cold in the same way we do when we’re scared. But it serves a slightly different purpose this time around: When our ancient ancestors were freezing, all that fluffed up hair would have trapped an insulating layer of air to keep them warm.
Why We Get Goosebumps When We’re Turned On
We experience goosebumps when we’re turned on for the same reason we get them when listening to an awesome song: Dopamine rushes to the brain, and if the pleasure of said dopamine rush is delayed—say, you’re enjoying some intense, uh, cuddling before engaging in the full-on deed—the dopamine continues to build up (creating more goosebumps) until the payoff comes through.
Now that is pretty dope(amine).