The Books That Give Us Chills: On Reading Emotionally
Veronica Esposito Considers the Power of Art on the Body
Before I knew how to read critically, I knew how to read emotionally. What I mean is, before I learned how to navigate books through intellectual cliques, or philosophical ideas, or categories—before I learned all that higher-level, neocortex stuff, I moved by more basic, more instinctual parts of my brain. I was drawn toward what made me feel.
This is reading that blurs into deep personal history. Naïve reading, charmed youthful reading, books that were scratching at something large and oblique—buried deep as an oceanic trench, but also very close, so so intimate. I read books that helped me be in community with things I did not know anyone else could understand. This kind of reading was a full-body experience. I felt that rush of pleasure that comes when you look in the mirror and like what you see, when you look into another person’s face and see it smiling at you, when you free your voice in a roomful of people and feel their support, their approval, their understanding.
Among other things, these books made me feel chills. That pleasant shiver that moves across the back of my neck like a personal storm, that sometimes drizzles through my thighs and down my calves, radiates through my chest, skitters down my arms. A little ticklish dance of well-being that is unlike any other good sensation (well, except maybe an orgasm). Recently, I was thinking about the books that make me feel this way after listening to a podcast called Key Notes that set out to answer the question, Why does music make you feel chills?
The show’s host, Cole Cuchna, interviewed a neuroscientist and operatic soprano named Indre Viskontas, and she told Cuchna what her research had to say about why certain kinds of music make us feel chills. The way Viskontas broke it down, it was all about repetition and surprise. Music is catchy because it repeats in familiar ways; our brain is really good at keeping track of things in our environment that follow logical patterns and that pay off in a reward. Catchy music that we enjoy listening to is exactly this kind of thing. Its repetition primes our brain for a dopamine reward, and we get that reward when the music pays off with the expected note. The chills come in when music does something unexpected. Instead of hitting the note that we expect to hear, that unexpected twist adds a little frisson to our dopamine reward, and boom—the chills.
Viskontas’s explanation made a lot of sense to me, and it checked out with the chills-inducing music that Cuchna profiled in the episode. It was a great explanation, but it still felt like something was missing. Because sometimes I feel the chills in very different situations than what Cuchna and Viskontas were talking about. As I pondered this discrepancy, I wondered, Is this the same thing? Does their explanation also pertain is these other situations? Or is something else going on? When I think about books that make me feel the chills, I think we need something more. Something that accounts for a feeling of intimacy.
First, a word on the differences between music and reading. We know that music is much more intrinsic to humanity than is reading. The oldest musical instruments are estimated to be around 40,000-80,000 years old—and human music-making likely goes back much, much further—whereas reading originated maybe just 5,000 years ago. Things like beating out a rhythm or following a repeating musical motif are much more instinctual parts of who we are, whereas reading is something that we have to painstakingly teach each new generation. No one reads by instinct like we tap our foot to a beat. To me, this implies that the circuits of reward that fire in the brain when we enjoy music are very different from those that are activated when we read a good book. So it makes me think a mechanical explanation like Viskontas’s makes sense for music, but maybe not so much for literature.
In my own life, I’ve most often noticed the chills when I’ve felt exceptional closeness to another person. It usually comes in the pocket of a particularly deep conversation, when a friend and I are sharing intimacies, and I begin to think that this person really understands me, and that my friend is probably thinking the same thing about me. As Viskontas suggests, this moment can come unexpectedly, like when someone says that thing that’s so apt and so meaningful that it just takes the conversation to a new level. I think this an essential part of forging a deep connection with another person, and it unfailingly makes me feel the chills.
There is some research into this phenomenon. A 2020 paper by Janis H. Zickfeld and others detailed research into how “sudden increases in communality and closeness (communal sharing) evokes a distinctive positive social relational emotion that motivates devotion to communal relationships.” In other words, when we start feeling closer to another person, it feels good, and we want to nurture the relationship. Zickfeld goes on, writing “the emotion is often accompanied by tears, chills, and feelings of warmth, and is denoted with terms such as moving, touching, or heartwarming in English vernacular.” According to Zickfeld, research has shown that such moments can induce bodily changes in heart rate, breathing, and skin conductance responses (the last of which is a way of measuring how much our emotions are stirred up). Essentially, our brains and bodies respond powerfully to sharing intimacies with one another, and feelings like the chills are a reward that comes during this process of social bonding.
What does this have to do with reading? There’s evidence that reading can also activate and satisfy this desire to connect intimately with other humans. A 2011 study conducted by Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young suggested that reading a novel can make us feel like we’re a part that novel’s community—that, in effect, we are having social interactions—and this can increase our sense of satisfaction and mood. Gabriel and Young theorize that reading can activate the same parts of the brain that turn on when we’re actually in community with other people. In the words of C.S. Lewis that they used to epigraph their study, “We read to know we are not alone.”
This all brings me back to the chills and that youthful reading-with-my-emotions that was the way I found my first reading community. I do think that Cuchna and Viskontas make a good point—the chills are involved with certain reward pathways in our brains, and they can get activated when we’re in familiar situations that prime our brain for a dopamine response. But perhaps when one experiences reading chills, it’s not just from the repetition and surprise that they associate with music but also from that sense of intimacy and connection that can come through a wonderful novel.
This theory checks out with the last chills-inducing book that I can remember reading, which was Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I read most of this brief, generous book one blistering summer day when I was camping on the side of a mountain. I won’t get too deep into the plot, except to say that this is an emotionally wrecking coming of age novel about Berie, a teenage girl living in rural upstate New York (just thinking and writing about this book right now is giving me the chills). A lot happens to Berie, and she does her best to feel loveable and important, despite some strong indications to the contrary. As the action of the novel rises, she takes some risks to do a very good thing for her far more beautiful, socially adroit best friend Sils, but she gets in way over her head and her whole life ends up shattering. She’s sent far away, and nothing is ever the same again. Years later, when Berie attends her high school reunion, she tries to catch some scent of those high school years; she wants some kind of meaning, some kind of conclusion to come from revisiting her past. Berie sees Sils, but she doesn’t end up getting what she wanted, and on the long drive back to her adult life in New York City, she realizes just how disappointing all of this is: she lets off a tear-ridden, cathartic monologue of pain. The emotionally high point of the book, it’s such a beautiful, well-earned moment. As I read, Berie’s fugue cries felt so powerful to me that I wrote “shattered” in the margins—a good description of my emotional state right as my body roiled with cleansing, aching chills.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is a masterfully wrought novel, and part of the reason why is how everything so perfectly leads up to this moment. As Cuchna and Viskontas suggest, all the ups and dows on this book, and the little slivers of plot and character development, have been prepping me for Berie’s cathartic cry. I’d bet that by the time I got to this moment, my brain was soaked with dopamine waiting to let loose. But then also, this was more than just a singer hitting a high note, or a delightful switch of a musical motif: I saw right into Berie’s soul, and I felt like she understood something deep and meaningful about me. In a word, this moment felt powerful. For a small while we were sisters, and I wanted to give her a big hug and tell her that she was oh so important.
Perhaps when I was young and first finding my way as a reader, I fell in love with books like this because they made me feel essential things that I wasn’t getting elsewhere. And then, as I got older, I started to find it less fashionable to read this way, and I moved into a more analytic stance as a critical reader. But now it feels like I’m coming full circle—I’ve learned to value far more greatly the things that get me down in my heart than the things that get me up in my head. I like the feelings that the former brings, feelings of connection, of gratitude, of generosity and surplus, of understanding, compassion, care. I like thinking about how books make me feel this way, and why this feels so meaningful. I like this kind of reading that feels like full-body reading, like reading-with-all-of-my-senses. It’s reading that centers me, that puts me squarely in contact with my body and the self that sits within it.