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On Goose Bumps

Monday, November 26, 2012 - 06:15 PM

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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Comments [30]

Kathleen from CA

1.) When I receive a neck massage, I get goosebumps on my legs. Every single time. So I request neck massages often from my boyfriend because it feels so good! =) I tell him, "Quick feel my legs," and we laugh. The other night he added massaging my head, just above my neck, and into my hair. I got the biggest goosebumps ever. He felt them and said, "Oh my God." We laughed and laughed. In fact that is why I looked up information about goosebumps today! (4/11/16)

2.) Every time I hear a person with a beautiful voice sing live, on t.v. - mostly high notes with a very strong voice, I get goosebumps.

3.) When someone washes my hair, at a hair salon - the water can be hot, warm, or cool, I get goosebumps.

Ironically, I seldom get goosebumps when I'm cold.

Apr. 11 2016 02:58 PM
Amber from California

I had no idea what goosebumps were for, so cool! I have a kitten and when he gets afraid he puffs up too, now I have a very furry human image puffing up like my cat, it makes me giggle thinking about it. I cannot believe how important goosebumps used to be. I got goosebumps reading the last paragraphs of this article, what an interesting thought that they are protecting us from emotional hurt.

Nov. 25 2014 12:56 PM

I get goosebumps like this all the time. Yesterday i got them from drinking a peach, plum, carrot, and orange smoothie made with organic, fresh fruits my friend dumpster dove for.

Good writing. They may have a future, yet.

Aug. 19 2013 03:01 PM
Alycia from Haymarket

Well, i remember the first time I saw my now close friend Eric, I got goosebumps. He was very attractive o me. I still haven't gotten an answer to why I got the bumps. My friends now say that we have a skinny-love thing(when two people love each other but are too shy to admit it but they still show it). I don't think I "love" him. I fancy him a bit, but I do not love him. If somebody could email me an answer to why I got these goosbumps it would be helpful. I told my close friend that is much older, and married. She just said "oooh, Alycia. ;)". Did'nt tell me much. Thank you all.xx


Jul. 24 2013 07:47 PM
Will Rogers from Richmond, VA

"Frisson" is the word used to describe sensation-based goosebumps like the ones you get from a good story. There's an entire subreddit dedicated to it:

Feb. 11 2013 12:25 AM
dennis duvali

in 1984 on my first trip to europe i met a couple of young men on a train from zurich to saanen. as it turned out we were going to the same series of lectures, and ended up camping next to each other...we became friends and they invited me to visit them in the hague, netherlands. one day we were hanging out in a park and talking, when suddenly a stiff breeze blew up. wearing a short sleeve shirt i was chilled and goose bumps appeared. i said, " ooh i've got goose bumps...they looked at me perplexed. i asked" what do you call them in dutch". "kippenfelt" they replied! "it means chicken skin', they added. thereupon i realized that it did look like chicken skin...looking at each they said, " you americans make everything bigger than it really is"!!

Jan. 06 2013 12:48 PM
George from Texas

The last time I remember getting goosebumps from another person's story or the like (they sang & played a song), and other times before as well, I noticed that I associated it most with the person being vulnerable, and empathizing with them. Though I do have social anxiety disorder, so perhaps my amygdala is skewing things...

Jan. 01 2013 08:45 AM

As a former massage therapist, I'd like to reassure BeachN that getting goosebumps is a common occurrence during a massage. Your experience, while it felt good was likely caused by the release of energy through your body when a tense area that had been blocking the normal flows is relaxed. The fact that it felt good is not required to get goosebumps. Often, releasing blocked energy comes from a deep tissue massage which can be somewhat painful.

Dec. 18 2012 04:49 AM

I'm always really skeptical of the whole vestigial traits thing. Scientists long ago declared that the appendix does nothing and that is constantly repeated in the press. Turns out the appendix's job is to "reboot" the digestive system with the bacteria safely stored there after a bout of cholera or the like. Same thing goes for 'junk' DNA, where it was one claimed 97% does nothing. Turns out over 80% has functionality and the percentage keeps on creeping up as scientists learn more.

Goose bumps still help lift moisture off the skin (like if you fell into a freezing lake) and probably serves a number of other functions. They also could help you avoid, literally, a brush with death, which might explain why we get goosebumps when we're freaked out. You could feel the approaching air of a stealthy predator etc.

If you think something in the human body doesn't have a purpose its because you haven't discovered it yet.

Dec. 12 2012 05:39 PM
EricW from NYC

Interesting perspective. I say perspective, because im not one who can grasp the theory of originating from apes. Butnonetheless, I do believe the two points are valid. It makes sense. For me, im able to control my goosebumps. A little twitch of my shoulders, and an army of feel-good goosebumps go from my neck, down my spine and arms, and ending in my calves. I have to say, when im stressed out, these little flesh muscles are more comforting than anything. Its like taking that first sip of coffee in the morning.

Dec. 12 2012 08:14 AM
Flying Tofu from Miami, Fla

Decades ago, Lulu, i recall getting goosebumps at the moment a well-crafted country music story songs suddenly revealed the awful truth -- when the padre (or priest?) suddenly appears revealing the Green Green Grass of Home is not about your usual happy reunion, or what happened on the night they were playing the beautiful Tennessee Waltz, etc... The sweet melancholy of the music helps, as I can't recall songs with equally surprising snappers that were funky or novelty from the start causing goosebumps. And, unlike the case with squeaky chalk, the feeling is, indeed, warm.

Dec. 10 2012 10:59 PM

I get goosebumps when I sneeze.

Dec. 09 2012 10:56 AM

Explain this... I was getting a massage in physical Therapy by a male and it felt so good it caused goose bumps...Hoping he didn't notice lol..

Dec. 05 2012 10:22 PM
Irene yardley from Dallas

Radiolab's good show. When the guy told the reason for why he saved a complete stranger from under a train while his 2 daughters stood looking on. So good.

Dec. 04 2012 11:19 PM

Lulu, I love this piece...and I love how poetic and beautiful your idea of it being related to us feeling dwarfed or small in the face of our emotions. But it does seem a bit too metaphorical, and doesn't seem to completely fit with all my experiences, for it to convince me that is really what is going on.
Nay's idea about the trigger being about sudden changes (emotion, temperature) is interesting.

Now this may sound funny, but Dascha's scenario got me we know if other primates fluff up when they are being groomed? Easier to find the parasites? Ack, I know not nearly as appealing an idea as yours, Lulu! But that is only part of the story; what about the emotions we feel? I bet there are attachment-encouraging hormones released.

Some goosebumps are associated with a rush of feeling...I'd be fascinated to see what hormones are being released at such moments, and I'd bet there would be some different ones for fear/danger situations, awe moments, and loving touch (though I'm not convinced that the awe & loving touch moment hormones would be different...wouldn't THAT be interesting to find out!)

When I was religious I used to associate the feelings that came with awe style goosebumps with "feeling the Spirit." Now I get the same feeling & goosebumps listening to Melody Sheep's renditions of Neil deGrasse Tyson's and other scientists! When my grandfather was convinced I was joining the wrong religion when I was a teen, and I told him the "Spirit told me it was true," we compared what the "Spirit" supposedly felt like...intense love, hope, joy & peace. It is no different a feeling than I still experience now with non-religious awe, "goosebump" moments.

And it would be interesting to find out if any hormones are being released in conjunction with goosebumps that occur from temperature changes or from specific unpleasant sensory stimuli like squeaky pickles against your teeth, or fingernails on chalkboard, forks against a certain type of plate (my kid), or rubbing fingers against newspaper (mine), or styrofoam or markers against cardboard (me again). I know that the goosebumps aren't as pronounced on me in response to these things as they are to temperature changes, and instead of a good feeling, I get the "icky shivers."

Dec. 04 2012 04:20 PM

As an artist/writer I've identified that this is the sensation I want to cultivate and evoke in others -- that rush of warmth and gentle prickling. I've come to the point that I can almost call it up at will, but it's never the same as when it comes on unexpectedly, from a moment of tenderness, when someone says something touching, listening to a piece of music, watching a performance....interestingly, much more common for me in live settings (versus recordings). I've come to think of it as a signal of awareness and acknowledgment of the connection between people.

Dec. 04 2012 12:06 PM
Jacqueline from London

I get all the symptoms, shivers, tears welling up and the goosebumps without fail when ever I hear Saint Saens organ finale:

I remember it from a child because it was used in the sound track for the film Babe about a pig who could talk. I would have cried watching it as a child so maybe now it has a pavlovs effect on me.

Maybe it is this nostalgia that triggers the feeling, or maybe it is something in the mighty shakings of the organ, so i wonder if anyone else gets the feeling from hearing this piece of music?

Dec. 04 2012 07:40 AM
Jen McMillen from Portland, OR

The most recent time I got goosebumps after reading this article was just seconds later - my long term, long distance boyfriend (2,000 miles away) sent me a youtube link to listen to, and part of the chorus was, "I wanna wake up where you are." Instant goosebumps.

Dec. 04 2012 02:04 AM
Nay from Arcata, California

I get goosebumps from sudden changes in temperature including, for instance, if I am in the shade and the sun suddenly hits me. Perhaps the trigger is less specific and we react more to unexpected changes in physical feelings and emotions?

Nov. 29 2012 09:43 PM

And Eric. "horripilate," oh how great!

Yes, your word is just the external part of the process.
horrre, to tremble
pilre, to grow hair (from pilus, hair)
"horripilate," is the hair shaking on the outside, "to bristle with hairs."

While my "Arrector Pili," are the things contracting the muscles from underneath.

Nov. 29 2012 11:42 AM

Overpowering... LOVE, Dascha? eh?? So giant your feelings for Sweetie they almost dwarf you??

Nov. 29 2012 11:32 AM

When my sweetie kisses my neck? Neither of your theories, Lulu, seem to apply to that most basic scenario!

Nov. 28 2012 05:43 PM
Eric from Berkeley CA

Maybe my favorite word: horripilate. To have ones hair stand on end. Is that the same as goosebumps?

Nov. 27 2012 11:38 PM
Jackie from Boston, MA

I read this article this morning, and thought it was really interesting. Then just now, I watched the music video for Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and got goosebumps during the marriage scene. I think I was just so moved by how special and happy the scene was.
The older I get, the more I notice that I get goosebumps from things I find particularly beautiful and moving. Mostly it's songs and movies, but occasionally I find that I get goosebumps when a book or spoken phrase is really moving, too. I don't know if it's because I feel things more deeply now, or that I'm just starting to realize how beauty affects me.

Nov. 27 2012 10:25 PM

Love this. Funnily enough, I've gotten goosebumps many times from listening to Radiolab!

Nov. 27 2012 09:27 PM
Splagg the Dan

I haven't noticed myself getting goosebumps in a long time, though as a child, 15-20 years ago, I remember getting them all the time. The most recent time I got goosebumps was right after a really intense bout of deja-vu. It was the first time in a long while that I'd had a 'deja-vu' moment though, so I attribute it to that.

There is one thing that will absolutely, 100% of the time (even if I have just gotten them moments before), give me goosebumps. Even just thinking about it sends a little wave of them over me. A sharply squeaky noise/feeling. Like, when i am chewing a pickle and a piece slides against my teeth.

Just thinking about how to word that last paragraph left me in waves of goosebumps.

Nov. 27 2012 06:53 PM
Russ from Perth, Western Australia, Australia

My Housemate recently told me that human foetuses have the vestigial remains of gills.

Nov. 27 2012 06:40 PM
Mahmoud Abdel Hamid from Montreal

I couldn't rap my head around how they could possibly make you good looking, as in; the only time I think I can actually see someone's goosebumped- if you may- is if I'm standing cmeters away from them, in which case I'd probably turned on something that's not the way hair stands on the other person's flesh. Am I not seeing them as you do, are my goosebumps not the same as yours?

Nov. 27 2012 04:39 PM
resonant goose

what fun!

i've come to notice chills and goose bumps in moments of deep resonance. in moments of deep hearing and being heard -- connection.

i wonder if these little muscles are evolving? becoming less a mechanism of protection and more one of courageous vulnerability.

Nov. 27 2012 01:41 PM

I had some goosebumps just before I read this article. I was just having a great time in my dreams, with my girlfriend, my baby and my dog. I think I got them because I noticed that I was just dreaming in that moment.

Nov. 26 2012 07:16 PM

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