Science Questions

What is a tingle down the spine?

Sun, 7th Sep 2008

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Gary the Milkman, Exeter asked:

Why is it when I’m listening to a piece of music or watching the Olympics and a gold medal is won, why do I get tingles down my spine, goosebumps and perhaps even drawn to tears? What’s happening biologically?


Chris: I think that this is all down to mirror neurons. There’s a paper in Nature Neuroscience a few weeks ago and they were looking at Olympic sportsmen. They were looking specifically at basketball players. They showed that pro basketball players (when they were watching footage of people trying to put a ball into a basket) even though they didn’t show them all the footage, they just showed them the ball in the hand of the thrower and just up to the moment when they threw it. They stopped the footage and said, ’Which balls are going to go into the basket?’ The pro players were able to correctly, 70% of the time, just by looking at the hand position work out whether they were going to get a basket. What they did at the same time was to measure the activity of the muscles in the subjects hands and they found that what these people were doing was superimposing what they saw as the position of the thrower’s hands onto their own motor areas of their brain in order to work out and compare what that thrower was doing compared with what they would do in the same circumstances in order to work out what they thought was going to happen. This is an elegant way of showing that when we experience the world around us we superimpose what we’re seeing other people doing, what we’re seeing going on around us onto our own internal map of the world: these mirror neurone. These reflect the behaviour of other people, showing us what sorts of emotions they’re experiencing and what they’re thinking. This helps us to predict what they’re going to do and therefore how to react and respond to them. When someone feels sad it makes you feel a bit sad. You feel their pain and this means that you can then put yourself in their shoes so you know how to respond appropriately. It’s all about empathy. I think that probably what Gary’s feeling is the effect of his mirror neurons. Pretty much all bits of the brain have these neurons, especially the bits of the brain that sense anxiety, fear, disgust and maybe even motor and visual things.

Helen: A little part of us also wins those gold medals.


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