Why do we get shivers down our spines?

21 April 2015

Question

What physiology takes place in the body when you get a frisson of delight? For example, when watching exquisite dance or hearing a superlative voice, why do we get a shiver down your spine?

Answer

We put this spine tingling question to Naked Scientist Ginny Smith...

Ginny - Well, this is weird one because those feelings are normally associated with fear, that kind of hair standing on end, cold shivers down your spine. We understand why we get those when we're afraid because your hair standing on end in animals would make them look bigger and scarier. The shiver down your spine and those kind of tingles you feel are the release of adrenalin in your body. And adrenalin helps you prepare to either fight off the attacker or run away from it. So, why do we get those feelings when we hear a beautiful singer or something like that? Well, scientists aren't entirely sure. One theory is that it's something unexpected can cause the same response and that's because often, unexpected things could be dangerous. So, it's a good idea to sort of prepare yourself in case that unexpected thing is danger. But when we know we're not in a dangerous situation, we can actually re-interpret those bodily feelings as sort of feeling of pleasure. So, when it's studied, this kind of tingles often come in music when there's a sudden change in the tempo or the volume that maybe you weren't expecting. And you get that kind of fear response but you know you shouldn't be scared. So actually, it's quite enjoyable, in the same that riding a roller coaster or that kind of first brush of the hand with a potential romantic partner. You can get that same sort of feeling. It's fear but not fear, and we actually quite enjoy it.

Kat - At the frisson of excitement. Does everyone get that?

Chris - Only when I'm listening to this show.

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