Pandemic Diary, September 27th, 2020: Bridge Over Troubled Water

After an early, home-cooked dinner of spaghetti, with a large glass of red wine, I went to bed for an early evening nap (having been up since 4:00 a.m. due to insomnia, once again), and I slept like a baby.

And woke up with one hell of an earworm running through my head—Fancy, by Reba McEntire: Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down…Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me downnnn…. (there, now it’s yours, too; you’re welcome!).

Which gives me an excuse to replay this beautiful, classic song that gives me chills:

Yes, I am one of those people who gets a tingling sensation throughout my body, but especially up my spine and neck and the back of my head, from certain pieces of music (I get the exact same reaction from Céline Dion’s rendition of Oh Holy Night). At its most powerful, it is a dopamine rush which engulfs me, a veritable ear-gasm.

A recent news article on this phenomenon reported:

[Do] you feel chills, a lump in your throat, or perhaps a tingling sensation on the back of your neck? Then you might have a more unique brain than you think.

study, carried out by Ph.D. student Matthew Sachs at the University of Southern California, has revealed that people who get chills from music might have structural differences in their brain.

The research studied 20 students, who listened to three to five pieces of music. Ten of the students admitted to feeling shivers, while the other ten didn’t. The researchers then took brain scans of all the participants.

“[The ten who felt shivers] have a higher volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas communicate better,” Matthew told Neuroscience News. These ten participants also had a higher prefrontal cortex, which is involved in certain areas of understanding, like interpreting a song’s meaning (Quartz).

The blog Mental Floss goes into more detail, and gives a good description of what happens to me with certain songs:

When your playlist strikes all the right chords, your body can go on a physiological joyride. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your body temperature rises. Blood redirects to your legs. Your cerebellum—mission control for body movement—becomes more active. Your brain flushes with dopamine and a tingly chill whisks down your back.

About 50 percent of people get chills when listening to music. Research shows that’s because music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.

Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next. (Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have. Making good predictions is essential for survival.)

But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.

I find I have been turning to music to comfort me more and more often during the pandemic. I bought a subscription to Calm Radio, and I keep a tab open in my Web browser while I work during the day, listening to the various musical streams (the Spa one is a new, relaxing favourite). You can listen to Calm Radio for free if you don’t mind the advertising, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to pony up.

The shorter days up here in Canada as winter approaches, combined with the continued social isolation as I work from home and the lack of external stimulation, have tipped me over into full-blown hibernation mode. I am a grouchy bear. I have a bad case of brain fog sometimes, and a distinct lack of creative juices, and it can be difficult to motivate myself at times to work or to clean my apartment. I sometimes sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. And after a six-month period of losing weight (the one silver lining of the pandemic), I now find that I am gaining weight again—time to hit the brakes on those large helpings of spaghetti!

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

As for my vow to avoid social media and the news media until after the U.S. federal election, well, I have been partially successful. I pop into a couple of subject-specific subReddits for the latest Canadian and global coronavirus news, and I steer clear of any other news websites (as I mentioned before, I do not have a television set). I have found that even a momentary dip into Google News or The Globe and Mail tends to send me into a spiral of anxiety and depression, and I do not need that now. For the next six weeks, I will just keep up-to-date on coronavirus pandemic news; the rest I choose to ignore. Donald who? 😉

My wish for you is that you find the comfort and support you need from the places, people, and routines that matter to you—your bridge over troubled water—during these stressful and unpredictable times. Stay sane and stay healthy!

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