Nov 26, 2012

On Goose Bumps

Holy heck, I just learned something crazy.

So you know about vestigial traits? Organs or attributes that no longer serve their original purpose, but still haven't completely vanished. Like your appendix.

I was recently looking into the topic and I came across a list of "10 Vestigial Traits You Didn't Know You Had."

And there, alongside our tonsils and tailbones, and those tiny little triangles of skin in the corners of our eyes that used to be full-on, horizontally opening-and-closing translucent third eyelids (yeah, uh huh! like lizards have) sat:

Goose bumps.

Now, I never thought of goose bumps as a vestigial trait. I thought of goose bumps as cool-looking, sure. Neato. But kind of pointless. It turns out, however, these little flashing studs of flesh used to do something very specific (and useful!) for us.

Think about when goose bumps occur: when you’re cold or really freaked out (Was that a ghost!? Ah. Goose bumps). Turns out those tiny domes are just evidence of the Arrector Pili muscles flexing. The Arrector Pili muscles are the tiny muscles in your dermis which connect to your hair follicles. Now, long ago, when you were covered with a nice thick coat of fur, the effect of such a contraction would be a magical POOF! Tada, you are now a giant fur-ball. Like a cat with its hair standing on end, but human-sized. Now it turns out there are two reasons hair standing on end is useful to a creature:

  1. It traps heat! The air your body heats up gets trapped more effectively when all those hairs are erect, so you've got yourself a nice warm layer of air to prevent against the advancing cold. Mmmm. Cozy town.
  2. It makes you look bigger to predators. Poof. I'm giant. I swear. Rowr.

It’s this second effect that made me smile. Because then I thought about the third thing which gives us goose bumps -- feeling so moved by something...something so sweet or sad or hopeful...that a wave of ripples appears on our skin. I never knew why that happened, though I’ve always loved it when it did. Proof, in cutaneous puckering, of just how much a story affected me. Now I see there might be a far more specific reason for this reaction. Perhaps when a story has a turn that’s so overwhelmingly powerful, it makes us feel humbled, literally: we feel small in the face of it. That little pulse of skin is an attempt to flex that long-lost coat of fur, an attempt to protect us. But not from some creature of massive strength -- not a sharp-taloned, razor-fanged predator -- but from Hope itself. Right? When I think about what brings on these "emotional" goose bumps -- what precisely is it that triggers them? -- I think it's moments of blindsiding hope. A jack-in-the-box surprise amount of human goodness. Lovers waiting for each other against all odds. That sort of thing.

Is it the same for you? Next time you get goose bumps because of someone’s story, or music, or art, whatever it is, try to note SPECIFICALLY what it was that did it. We’d love it if you’d share.

Either way, enjoy watching that ancient mechanism trying to do its thing, flashing its long-lost shield, in an attempt to make you look bigger than you are.


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