Research team Félix Schoeller, PhD, Adam Haar Horowitz and Abhinandan Jain of MIT are using their Joy grant to examine whether the wellbeing benefits of naturally-occurring chills can be reproduced.
Everyone experiences them. Nearly every culture exalts them. The uniquely intense emotional sensation known as chills, frisson, goosebumps, chaire de poule (French), gänsehaut (German), gæsahúð (Icelandic), amagqabi (Xhosa)…it’s seemingly as universal as sneezing or smiling.
Frisson is profoundly tied to meaningful peak emotional experiences—a climactic moment in a movie or a novel, a crescendo in a symphony, a religious experience, an intense interpersonal encounter (including sex). And much research has been conducted on the phenomenon’s psychophysiological benefits—stress reduction, enhanced pleasure and empathy, improved social cognition and even true positive transformative experiences.
But can the benefits of frisson go both ways? What happens if we elicit the physical manifestation of chills, without the psychogenic stimuli that usually causes it? Do we get the same benefits?
In other words, are all goosebumps equal?
Wearable Tech Meets the Chills
To answer this question, Joy Ventures grantee Félix Schoeller, PhD, together with Adam Haar Horowitz and Abhinandan Jain of the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab, created wearable technology that replicates, stimulates and enhances psychogenic shivers, AKA chills.
Félix is no stranger to neuroscientific and psychological research, with a large body of original work, collaborations and attributions to his name, notably in the field of interoception – our sense of the internal state of our bodies. With a BFA in filmmaking, and Master’s from the Interdisciplinary School for Advanced Studies in Social Science (EHESS) in Paris, and postdocs at the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity in Paris and at the French Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) – Félix was eminently qualified to address the issue.
In this task, he was joined by Adam and Abhi. Adam was a neuroscience researcher at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research before he became a PhD student and project leader of the Dream Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab focused on dream science that sits under Professor Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT’s Media Lab. Abhi is also a PhD student at the Media Lab studying under Professor Maes. He is trained as an Electronics Engineer and his interests lie in creating technologies for interoceptive interventions.
The team’s hypothesis was simple: they knew that our relationship with our bodies actively informs both our internal emotional life and our perception of the external world. This is known as embodied cognition. Thus, they hypothesized that if organically-occurring psychogenic chills impact cognition, then artificially-generated chills could as well.
The applications – both research and commercial – are intriguing. A device that induces the positive effects of chills could be used to combat anhedonia, the lack of pleasure associated with depression and other mood and affective disorders. It could assist those with impaired empathy or social cognition – autism or alexithymia, for example – in detecting aberrant emotional processing in real time, and even help them respond more appropriately with personalized, sensor-based recommendations of augmented content.
The team’s initial results were very positive. They found that the wearable device did indeed increase reported feelings of empathy and pleasure in subjects. This is highly promising – both for its potential applications to the field of wellbeing, and to scientific inquiry into the underlying mechanisms surrounding chills.
They are now preparing the next round of experiments at Roy Salomon’s Lab of Consciousness and Self at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Centre at Bar-Ilan University. The Salomon lab focuses on the cognitive and neural processes underlying perceptual consciousness and bodily self-consciousness. They use a combination of virtual reality, physiological signals, psychophysics and neuroimaging (EEG, MEG, fMRI) paradigms to study these processes in humans – both in neuro-typical populations and in clinical populations showing deficits in self-representation (e.g. Schizophrenic patients).
Next Research Steps
To further augment the knowledge of frisson, the team extended some prior work Felix had done with network scientist Marc Santolini at CRI Paris to build software to search YouTube for comments on video content mentioning words from the “chills dictionary” – shivers, chills, goosebumps, frisson, etc. From this raw material, they are currently crowdsourcing an effort to create a “chills gold standard” database – asking viewers to record where in each video they experienced chills, the intensity of these chills, and more.
The object of this effort? The team intends to pair their device with this content in an experimental setting. They’re going to create a portable closed-loop system for presenting chills stimuli, combined with psychophysiological sensors and mechanical actuators simulating the sensation of chills – then measuring subject responses in real time.
Why is this relevant? The team believes that artificial frisson sensations could be used to induce emotional processing that will help contextualize the attention paid to interoceptive and exteroceptive sensations. For example, in children with autism, artificial sensations that did or did not produce psychogenic shivers could be used to assess interoceptive sensitivity. Similarly, individuals with alexithymia could be more effectively assessed – quantifying the extent to which they recognize chills-inducing and non-chills-inducing content, and their differential event-related responses.
The Bottom Line
In answer to our question: it is entirely possible that a goosebump is a goosebump is a goosebump.
In other words, the psychophysiological benefits of psychogenic frisson appear to be similar to those from artificially-induced chills. The pleasure and wellbeing naturally derived from peak emotional experiences may be duplicatable. Moreover, the ability to discern whether an experience is or is not emotionally meaningful may be quantifiable.
At the very least, the team expects their device and research to offer a deeper understanding of the role that bodily sensations play in brain function. Yet ultimately, this enquiry could serve as a game-changing basis for commercial and clinical tools that effectively interface with the body to improve health and wellbeing.
At Joy Ventures, we are committed to accelerating profound discoveries and cutting-edge technologies to drive impact across broad areas of mental wellbeing. Félix, Adam and Abhi’s project is a perfect example of the great things that can happen when cutting edge technology and academic research join to find viable, effective solutions. We are thrilled to be supporting this team and look forward to sharing the results of their project!