Getting chills from great music connected to a new cognitive dimension of personality

People more open to Fantasy, which results in them being more cognitively attentive to music, are more likely to experience “frisson”, according to a study published this May in Psychology of Music. This contrasts with previous research that had repeatedly highlighted the relationship between frisson and the emotional aspects of an individual’s personality type.

Frisson, coming from the French word meaning “aesthetic chills”, feels like a pleasurable chill or tingle and is experienced by roughly two-thirds of the population. It often starts in the back of the neck or top of the spine and then spreads down the spine or over the head, shoulders and arms. Frisson most commonly occurs when listening to emotionally moving music, although it may also occur when watching a moving scene in a movie, looking at beautiful artwork, or when having physical contact with another person.

Studies have repeatedly shown a positive link between frisson and the personality trait of Openness to Experience. More specifically, they have highlighted the emotional nature of this personality type, with feelings (openness to inner feelings and emotions) and aesthetics (appreciation of art and beauty) the two aspects of Openness found to have the closest relationship to frisson.

The study, by Mitchell Colver (Utah State University) and Amani El-Alayli (Eastern Washington University), involved 113 college students (97 in the final sample). Students completed a personality test, which includes a measure of Openness to Experience, and then listened to five musical pieces of music that were likely to cause frisson. Whilst the music played they were connected to an instrument that measures galvanic skin response (changes in the electrical resistance of the skin caused by physiological arousal). Students were also asked to report their experiences of frisson by pressing a small button.

The results revealed that, as expected, frequency of frisson was positively correlated with overall Openness to Experience. However, one important finding of the study was that Fantasy (receptivity to the inner world of imagination), was shown to be the only individual aspect of openness whose unique variance was related to the experience of frisson. The authors argued that Fantasy refers to an individual’s cognitive attentiveness to the music, and therefore the results of the present study indicate that emotions alone may not explain the phenomenon of frisson.

People high in this cognitive aspect of personality might find unexpected musical events to be far more cognitively salient, which in turn makes the music more emotionally moving and likely to induce frisson. The authors suggested that “this knowledge could allow individuals to put forth more cognitive effort in order to achieve frisson experiences more readily”.