Your Favorite Songs Can Give You ‘Skin Orgasms’
Whether your favorite songs elicit tears, laughter or chills, physical reactions from music are nothing new. However, a new study has equated those responses to that of a sexual nature, dubbing them “skin orgasms” -- or what are also known as “musical frissons.”
Psyche Loui, a psychologist at Wesleyan University, and her student, Luke Harrison, conducted a study that placed subjects in an fMRI scanner with their favorite songs and then assessed how the brain responded to the music.
As Loui’s study discovers, after a lifetime of listening to music, we begin to formulate expectations of musical movements; however, it’s when musicians and composers deviate from those expectations -- unconventional changes in harmony, melody, volume or otherwise -- that we might experience a physical reaction. In a piece covering the study, BBC’s David Robson described the effect on the brain:
For instance, violated expectations seem to startle (albeit gently) the automatic nervous system, in its most primitive region, the brain stem – producing the racing heart, the breathlessness, the flush that can signal the onset of a frisson. What’s more, the anticipation, violation, and resolution of our expectations triggers the release of dopamine in two key regions – the caudate and the nucleus accumbens, shortly before and just after the frisson. You see a similar response when people take drugs or have sex, which may explain why we find shiver-inducing songs so addictive, says Loui.
Of course, our favorite songs carry strong emotional attachments, too. We might consider what songwriters were experiencing when they wrote their songs or associate songs with our own personal memories. “Our own autobiographical experiences interact with the musical devices,” Loui told Robson, “so that everyone finds a different piece of music rewarding.”
With the right combination, Loui says, “The aesthetic experience can be so intense that you can’t do anything else.”
Loui assembled a playlist of songs that exhibit the qualities that led to “skin orgasms” in her subjects. It includes Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” -- the song that helped inspire Loui’s research due to her own physical response -- as well as Rufus Wainwright’s take on “Hallelujah” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” Listen below: