What Are Goosebumps?


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I think it is safe to say that we have all had Goosebumps many times in our lifetime. They pop up all over our body when we get cold, but while it is a naturally and relatively common thing, do you even know what they are?

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            Properly known as piloerection, horripliation or pilomotor reflex, the bumps we get are stimulated by fear and cold and they are essentially just a temporary change in the skin. These stimulants cause a nerve discharge from the sympathetic nervous system (which is an involuntary portion of nerves we have) and the nerve discharges create muscle contractions called arrrectores pilorum that raise the hair follicles in our skin. It is the elevation of the hair that causes the Goosebumps.  The name Goosebumps actually comes from the fact that plucked goose feathers resemble the human hair follicles.

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            We cannot control Goosebumps at all (hence the statement before that they are triggered by a involuntary nervous system) and they are also considered a fight or flight response. A fight or flight response is just a physiologic response that is our bodies primitive and automatic response that either prepares us to fight or flee (AKA flight) from any harm or fight off something, like an enemy or the cold. This leads right into some of the theories for why we get Goosebumps because the reason we get them is still uncertain. Biologists believe that they are a reflex that we developed years and years ago. One theory about Goosebumps suggests that our ancestors, who were much hairy than we are today, appeared bigger and scarier when they had goose bumps, therefore Goosebumps were useful for scaring away enemies. That theory goes hand in hand with the "fight" part of a fight or flight response. In terms of the "flight" part, Goosebumps could have also been used to keep people warm by making body hair fluffy and able to trap heat near the skin.

 Our body today as we all know, still creates these muscle contractions as an attempt to warm us when we are cold, but with us being less hairy then our ancestors, our goose bumps are pretty ineffective at keeping us warm or helping scare off enemies. Essentially, Goosebumps are useless.

            Researchers have tried looking into why we might get Goosebumps from music. Jaak Panksepp, a Bowling Green State neurobiologist studied how music triggers Goosebumps. He discovered that people got Goosebumps from sad feelings they get from music. Panksepp believes that chemicals in the brain, related to social loss, are the reason we get Goosebumps from sad songs. Pankseepp also suggests that this response is related to our ancestors reacting to the loss of a family member or the cry of a baby. So once again, our ancestor's reactions are affecting us today.

            Goosebumps not only happen to us, but they also can pop up on animals. Ever see the hair on the back of a cat stand up? Or the needles of a porcupine stick out in an intimidating way? It is all the same as us. Goosebumps are happening as a body's attempt to stay warm or scare off an enemy. The difference is animals have much more hair, therefore Goosebumps work more for them than they do for us.

           So next time you get Goosebumps, think about them and how they used to serve a purpose! 

5 Comments

Very interesting post! I've heard all the stuff about how goosebumps are part of our flight or fight reaction and how they can be caused by cold, but I've never seen anything scientific about the music part. I think that the research should have perhaps been a little more thorough though because I know that I have gotten goosebumps from more than just sad music. I know I get the goosebumps at times from any music that I feel a strong emotional response too, not just sadness, especially those epic movie orchestra songs.

Here's an interesting article from The Guardian that doesn't have research about why music gives us goosebumps, but it does show that music which has this effect can cause as much as a 21% increase in dopamine in the people listening. Dopamine, as the article says, is the brain's "reward chemical" and creates feelings of pleasure. As the article says, this effect is similar to that of delicious food or drugs like cocaine!

I have always wondered this same thing. I always thought they had no purpose but to just show us we are cold or scared. I do agree with the theory of our ancestors affecting us now but "fluffing" their hair out, but then why do we still have goosebumps. We has adapted in other ways from our ancestors and some of the things that affected them do not affect us now. We have other vestigial structures (things we no longer need because of adaptation) that are still around in our live today like the appendix and wisdom teeth, but others have been phased out So if the goosebumps not longer have a purpose, why are they still around? Here is an article that talks about some other vestigial structures, organ, and other qualities we have, including goosebumps. However, they actually make an argument for them saying that they heighten our emotional reactions.

Even in having them for my entire life, I never seemed to question this reaction. I really enjoyed this post and found it extremely interesting. I find the theory of goosebumps being a defense mechanism making us appear larger very funny. I would've loved to see any human ancestor fluffed out in this fashion. I also really liked how you included where the term came from, I had never even associated geese with goosebumps before today. Thanks!

I think it is fascinating that research is being done to see if goosebumps can be caused by music. I definitely think people experience a type of goosebumps reaction for a multitude of reasons, but I have never really payed attention to how my own body responds to something as simple as listening to a moving song. I definitely associate experiencing "butterflies in the stomach" or turning "ghostly pale" as the same type of enigma as goosebumps. Maybe these idiomatic bodily functions have the same cool roots!

I have always had really visible goose bumps (more so than most people) and I've wondered why. I tried to find articles explaining it but no success. Does anybody know why?

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