Have you ever been listening to a great piece of music and felt a chill run up your spine? Or goosebumps tickle your arms and shoulders?
The experience is called frisson (pronounced free-sawn), a French term meaning “aesthetic chills,” and it feels like waves of pleasure running all over your skin. Some researchers have even dubbed it a “skin orgasm.”
Listening to emotionally moving music is the most common trigger of frisson, but some feel it while looking at beautiful artwork, watching a particularly moving scene in a movie or having physical contact with another person. Studies have shown that roughly two-thirds of the population feels frisson, and frisson-loving Reddit users have even created a page to share their favorite frisson-causing media.
But why do some people experience frisson and not others?
Working in the lab of Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of Social Psychology at Eastern Washington University, I decided to find out.
What causes a thrill, followed by a chill?
While scientists are still unlocking the secrets of this phenomenon, a large body of research over the past five decades has traced the origins of frisson to how we emotionally react to unexpected stimuli in our environment, particularly music.
If a violin soloist is playing a particularly moving passage that builds up to a beautiful high note, the listener might find this climactic moment emotionally charged, and feel a thrill from witnessing the successful execution of such a difficult piece.
Some scientists have suggested that goosebumps are an evolutionary holdover from our early (hairier) ancestors, who kept themselves warm through an endothermic layer of heat that they retained immediately beneath the hairs of their skin. Experiencing goosebumps after a rapid change in temperature (like being exposed to an unexpectedly cool breeze on a sunny day) temporarily raises and then lowers those hairs, resetting this layer of warmth.
Since we invented clothing, humans have had less of a need for this endothermic layer of heat. But the physiological structure is still in place, and it may have been rewired to produce aesthetic chills as a reaction to emotionally moving stimuli, like great beauty in art or nature.
Research regarding the prevalence of frisson has varied widely, with studies showing anywhere between 55 percent and 86 percent of the population being able to experience the effect.
Monitoring how the skin responds to music
We predicted that if a person were more cognitively immersed in a piece of music, then he or she might be more likely to experience frisson as a result of paying closer attention to the stimuli. And we suspected that whether or not someone would become cognitively immersed in a piece of music in the first place would be a result of his or her personality type.
To test this hypothesis, participants were brought into the lab and wired up to an instrument that measures galvanic skin response, a measure of how the electrical resistance of people’s skin changes when they become physiologically aroused.
Participants were then invited to listen to several pieces of music as lab assistants monitored their responses to the music in real time.
Each of these pieces contains at least one thrilling moment that is known to cause frisson in listeners (several have been used in previousstudies). For example, in the Bach piece, the tension built up by the orchestra during the first 80 seconds is finally released by the entrance of the choir – a particularly charged moment that’s likely to elicit frisson.
As participants listened to these pieces of music, lab assistants asked them to report their experiences of frisson by pressing a small button, which created a temporal log of each listening session.
By comparing these data to the physiological measures and to a personality test that the participants had completed, we were, for the first time, able to draw some unique conclusions about why frisson might be happening more often for some listeners than for others.
The role of personality
Results from the personality test showed that the listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called Openness to Experience.
Studies have shown that people who possess this trait have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life.
Some aspects of this trait are inherently emotional (loving variety, appreciating beauty), and others are cognitive (imagination, intellectual curiosity).
While previous research had connected Openness to Experience with frisson, most researchers had concluded that listeners were experiencing frisson as a result of a deeply emotional reaction they were having to the music.
In contrast, the results of our study show that it’s the cognitive components of “Openness to Experience” – such as making mental predictions about how the music is going to unfold or engaging in musical imagery (a way of processing music that combines listening with daydreaming) – that are associated with frisson to a greater degree than the emotional components.
These findings, recently published in the journal Psychology of Music, indicate that those who intellectually immerse themselves in music (rather than just letting it flow over them) might experience frisson more often and more intensely than others.
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Indeed, it seems as though before we can even finish mourning the loss of one pop star, another falls. There’s no shortage of groundbreaking artists who die prematurely, whether it’s Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley or Hank Williams.
As a physician, I’ve begun to wonder: Is being a superstar incompatible with a long, healthy life? Are there certain conditions that are more likely to cause a star’s demise? And finally, what might be some of the underlying reasons for these early deaths?
To find out the answer to each of these questions, I analyzed the 252 individuals who made Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest artists of the rock & roll era.
More than their share of accidents
To date, 82 of the 252 members of this elite group have died.
There were six homicides, which occurred for a range of reasons, from the psychiatric obsession that led to the shooting of John Lennon to the planned “hits” on rappers Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. There’s still a good deal of controversy about the shooting of Sam Cooke by a female hotel manager (who was likely protecting a prostitute who had robbed Cooke). Al Jackson Jr., the renowned drummer with Booker T & the MGs, was shot in the back five times in 1975 by a burglar in a case that still baffles authorities.
An accident can happen to anyone, but these artists seem to have more than their share. There were numerous accidental overdoses – Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols at age 21, David Ruffin of the Temptations at 50, The Drifters’ Rudy Lewis at 27, and country great Gram Parsons, who was found dead at 26.
And while your odds of dying in a plane crash are about one in five million, if you’re on Rolling Stone’s list, those odds jump to one in 84: Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and Ronnie Van Zant of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band all died in airplane accidents while on tour.
It’s likely tied to the elevated alcohol and drug use among artists. Liver bile duct cancers – which are extremely rare – happened to two of the top 100, with Ray Manzarek of The Doors and Tommy Ramone of the Ramones both succumbing prematurely from a cancer that normally affects one in 100,000 people a year.
The vast majority of those on Rolling Stone’s list were born in the 1940s and reached maturity during the 1960s, when tobacco smoking peaked. So not surprisingly, a significant portion of artists died from lung cancer: George Harrison of the Beatles at age 58, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys at 51, Richard White of Pink Floyd at 65, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations at 52 and Obie Benson of the Four Tops at 69. Throat cancer – also linked with smoking – caused the deaths of country great Carl Perkins at 65 and Levon Helm of The Band at 71.
A good number from the list had heart attacks or heart failure, such as Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones at 47 and blues greats Muddy Waters at 70, Howlin Wolf at 65, Roy Orbison at 52 and Jackie Wilson at 49.
Currently, the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid abuse epidemic, with heroin and prescription drug overdoses happening at historic rates.
But for rock stars, opioid abuse is nothing new. Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Gram Parsons, Whitney Houston (who didn’t make the list), Michael Jackson and now Prince all died from accidental opioid overdoses.
Factoring in their birth year and a life expectancy of 76 years, only 44 should have died by now. Instead, 82 have. (Incidentally, of the 44 we would have expected to be dead by now, 19 are still alive.)
The second shocking discovery was the sobering and disproportional
occurrence of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.
There was Kurt Cobain’s gunshot suicide while intoxicated and Duane Allman’s drunk driving motorcycle crash. Members of legendary bands like The Who (John Entwistle, 57, and Keith Moon, 32), The Doors (Jim Morrison, 27), The Byrds (Gene Clark, 46, and Micheal Clarke, 47) and The Band (Rick Danko, 55, and Richard Manuel, 42) all succumbed to alcohol or drugs.
Others – The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and country star Hank Williams – steadily declined from substance abuse while their organs deteriorated. Their official causes of death were heart-related. In truth, the cause may have been more directly related to substance abuse.
In all, alcohol and drugs accounted for at least one in 10 of these great artists’ deaths.
Does a quest for fame lead to an early demise?
Many have explored the root causes behind these premature deaths.
One answer may come from dysfunctional childhoods: experiencing physical or sexual abuse, having a depressed parent or having a family broken up by tragedy or divorce. An article published in the British Medical Journal found that “adverse childhood experiences” may act as a motivator to become successful and famous as a way to move past childhood trauma.
The authors noted an increased incidence of these adverse childhood experiences among famous artists. Unfortunately, the same adverse experiences also predispose people to depression, drug use, risky behaviors and premature death.
A somewhat similar hypothesis is proposed by the Self Determination Theory, which addresses human motivation through the lens of “intrinsic” versus “extrinsic” life aspirations. People who have intrinsic goals seek inward happiness and contentment. On the other hand, people who possess extrinsic goals focus on material success, fame and wealth – the exact sort of thing attained by these exceptional artists. According to research, people who have extrinsic goals tend to have had less-involved parents and are more likely to experience bouts of depression.
By following the relationship between genius and mental illness, mental illness and substance abuse, and then substance abuse, health problems and accidental death, you can see why so many great artists seem almost destined for a premature or drug-induced demise.
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Hailing from the streets of Brooklyn, rapper Sean Price had run a solid course of helping to produce underground rap records since 1995 when he first appeared on Smiff-N-Wesson’s album Dah Shinin’ and soon afterwards teaming up with rapper Rock to form the hip hop duo Heltah Skeltah, which was received with critical acclaim.
When Price died a few days ago with no immediate known cause or reason, it sparked interest in an otherwise overlooked rapper by the world of pop culture. Sure, Pitch Fork will do their piece and so will countless other media sources now that he’s passed, but the legacy he left behind is up to the true underground artists that surrounded him and embraced his presence to carry on. Most musicians have countless tracks on the shelf, demos of material yet to be set in stone, so the question remains: will we get to hear any of it on the road ahead?
Price was always on the lookout for producing new music with other underground artists, as can be seen by one of his last tweets before he died:
He had collaborated on 9 records, including one that was still in production when he passed (and will hopefully be released later this year) with Heltah Skeltah, and had produced three solo albums over the past 15 years, the latest Mic Tyson reaching #9 on the U.S. R&B charts
Despite being of the more hardcore variety of hip hop artists, Price was a family man, being survived by his wife and three children. This aspect left fans raising a whopping $72,883 in the past 4 days for the fallen rapper in supportive condolences, raised through the crowd-sourcing fundraiser website Crowdrise.
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Country singers Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert announced their divorce Monday after four years of marriage, setting rumor mills abuzz with infidelity speculation. The couple’s fans on Twitter suspected Shelton of cheating on Lambert. But, according to a report on Tuesday, it was the “Little Red Wagon” singer who cheated on her 39-year-old husband. Shelton suspected… Continue reading →
Taylor Swift leads way with nine MTV VMA nominations Option Trading Partners Breaking News – Taylor Swift led the way with nine nominations for this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, which were announced on Apple Music’s Beats 1 platform. Beats 1 hosts Brooke Reece and Travis Mills revealed the list of nominees, which saw Swift receive… Continue reading →
MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) – A man charged with shooting into Lil Wayne’s tour buses on a Georgia highway called cellphones linked to rappers Young Thug and Birdman before and after the gunfire, according to an indictment in the case. A grand jury indicted Jimmy Carlton Winfrey on 30 counts including charges of aggravated assault and racketeering.… Continue reading →
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