We have all had goosebumps at one time or another. They are a common reaction to various stimulants. They can happen when a light wind brushes against your skin or if you almost fall over. Goosebumps can also occur when you hear a singer hit a particular note or when you receive a kiss from someone you truly care about. All of these experiences can cause goosebumps, but scientists are still baffled by them. We mostly know what goosebumps are, but why they exactly happen still remains under a cloud of mystery.
The name says it all, at least aesthetically. When a goose is plucked of its feathers, the skin starts forming small bumps in the places where the feathers used to be located, due to the stress of plucking. In humans the process is similar. At the end of each strand of hair on the human body, we find small muscles called erector pili. As the muscles contract, they force the hairs on a person’s body to stand up.
Unfortunately, scientists still do not know why this happens exactly. The general consensus is that it is some form of survival mechanism that we inherited from early humans. At the early stages of evolution, we were a much hairier species. In order to contain some of the heat near our bodies during winter times, the hairs would straighten up and trap some hot air in order to form a thin layer of insulation around the body.
This all makes sense as a survival mechanism, but it does not tell us much in the way of why this also happens when we hear emotional music or when we are affected with some other stimulate. Scientist Mitchell Colver, from the Utah State University, has taken a keen interest into why goosebumps occur when people are not cold. What he focuses on is something called frisson, better known as the wave of pleasure. This phenomenon affects more than two-thirds of our population.
The theory that makes the most sense, according to Dr. Colver, is that all this is part of a more elaborate flight-or-fight mechanism. This defense mechanism is responsible for our lightning-quick responses when we experience something unexpected. This is especially true for loud noises. For example, the snapping of a branch nearby causes our body to pump out adrenaline since the sound automatically triggers the feeling that we are not alone in our surroundings. The adrenaline coursing through our blood immediately puts us into the fight or flight mode. Our reaction times are shorter, and we get a sudden boost in strength, accompanied by a temporary boost of speed.
Adrenaline is also responsible for triggering goosebumps. The thinking behind this is that our brains have evolved so much that they connect things such as music or emotional experience to something like the aforementioned breaking of a branch. Again, this all occurs in order for us to have the best chance of survival at any given moment.
A trained singer, for example, basically trains their voice to scream and yell in tune. This then sends signals that this person might be in trouble. Our brain registers this and our body responds by forming goosebumps. This also happens when listening to songs. As you listen to music and hear an unexpected sound or note, especially for the first time, your body and brain react as though something is wrong and goosebumps start forming. This all stops when our cognitive abilities return to normal. As we relax and get accustomed to whatever we are experiencing, we start enjoying ourselves more.
People even receive boosts of dopamine, a chemical responsible for the sensation of happiness. All this seems like a reward for learning to recognize that something is not a threat. So, the next time you get goosebumps, ask yourself whether you should flee, fight or just enjoy yourself?