What do a crisp fall breeze and a moving piece of music have in common? They both have the ability to give us the chills. We associate getting the chills with being cold or sick, but sometimes the physiological response has nothing to do with a drop in temperature. Hence, the question "Why do we get the chills?" is not as straightforward as one might think. I get the same shivery feeling when watching a scary movie or listening to a beautiful, sad song as I do when I forget a sweater on a cold day. Getting the chills can be at once a sign that something great happened or that you are coming down with the flu.
The chills are a sudden feeling of cold usually accompanied by shivering and goosebumps. The muscles of the body rapidly expand and contract, attempting to generate heat to raise the body temperature in response to an infection or a cold wind. Goosebumps are different than the chills, though they are caused by the same stimuli. When cold air hits the skin, the tiny muscles attached to each hair follicle contract, causing a dip in the skin. The surrounding area protrudes in response, which causes small elevations and the hair to stand on end. It is thought that this evolutionary response helped the hair covering our early ancestors' bodies to expand and insulate against the cold. Though we are still covered with fine hair today (don't I know it), this reflexive response doesn’t do us a whole lot of good when compared to say... a puffy parka.
Strong emotions can also give us the chills and cover our arms with goosebumps. We can thank our fight-or-flight response for this — stressful emotions such as fear, love, or sadness cue a rush of adrenaline. Those all-too familiar shivers are a side effect of this chemical spike, along with sweaty palms, tears, and an increase in blood pressure. Whether we are feeling excitement or fear, our body produces the same stress hormone. This is why we get a racing heart, goosebumps, and shivers during happy moments, like learning you got the job you always wanted or walking down the aisle on your wedding day, as well as the sad or terrifying moments.
A beautiful piece of music or artwork also has the ability to send a shiver down our spine. This response is called frisson and is a widely reported phenomenon, though scientists are still debating what exactly it is in a piece of music that gives us goosebumps and the chills. Slate reports that approximately 55 to 86 percent of people experience aesthetic chills, and for those who want to explore the phenomenon for themselves, there is an entire subreddit devoted to it. Check out the list of frisson-inducing clips on Reddit and see if there is climactic moment of a song that thrills you, or a heartwarming video that moves you to goosebumps. The body produces dopamine when it sees or hears something that it deems pleasurable, so regardless of whether it gives you shivers, great art will still feel an emotional boost.