Goosebumps: An eerie phenomenon explained by science

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, you may find yourself reacting to the holiday’s inherent creepiness with goosebumps. But have you ever wondered what’s behind this physiological phenomenon that makes your skin pucker up like a plucked bird?

I like to joke sometimes that goosebumps are a reaction to my writing. And indeed, goosebumps are associated with a wide range of strong feelings and emotions. We get goosebumps not only when we’re scared, but also when listening to great music, being spiritually aroused, or reading or watching something exciting.

Of course, we can also get goosebumps simply because we’re feeling cold. And I recently came across some fascinating new research out of Harvard that explains just how (and why) this occurs…

Getting the chills

Goosebumps, or goose pimples, are known scientifically as piloerection. They’re caused by a contraction of small muscles attached to hair follicles in your skin. This action pulls on the surface of the skin, causing the tiny hairs to stand up straight and create goosebumps.

But here’s the really interesting part: The Harvard researchers found that this process leads to new hair growth by stimulating stem cells in the hair follicles.1 So if you’re often chilled, you could eventually grow  more hair to keep warm.

This evolutionary process protects animals with thick fur from the cold, and has been preserved as a response in humans (which have been called the “naked ape”).

Historically, many humans had thicker hair, and pushing it upright created a zone of insulation around the skin to help keep the body warmer (like the principle behind a wetsuit). It also made the silhouette of the body look bigger, which might be interpreted as a threat to a predator or competitor.

But what about the goosebumps caused by strong feelings?

How emotion leads to goosebumps

There’s evidence that the skin muscle contractions that cause goosebumps can be stimulated by the release of the hormones that occurs when we have higher stress or arousal (good or bad)—the so-called “fight-or-flight” process.

In other words, you can emotionally “get the chills” just like you can physically—which leads to the same goosebump process the Harvard researchers described.

One study found that women experience goosebumps more often than men. The researcher noted that when animals are separated from their parents, the babies cry or call out. These sounds may trigger chills in the mother, enhancing her motivation to find her lost children. This “separation call hypothesis” may explain why female animals (including humans) may more often get goosebumps.2

Another study involved 20 college students who listened to several pieces of music. Half of the students felt “shivers” or goosebumps. The researchers conducted brain scans on the participants, and found that the people with goosebumps had more fibers connecting their auditory cortex to the areas of the brain associated with emotional processing—suggesting all of those areas communicate better.3

The researchers concluded that people who get the “chills” may simply have an enhanced ability to experience strong emotions.

What you can do about goosebumps

The skin is the interface between the body and the outside world. It’s the largest organ in the body and it responds to emotional as well as environmental stimuli. In fact, people are called “thin skinned” or “thick skinned” depending upon how they process their feelings.

So it makes sense that a skin-related phenomenon like goosebumps can be caused by both physical and emotional factors. Still, some of the comings and goings of goosebumps remain mysterious (and can simply be a response to something that feels mysterious, or majestic).

If you’re concerned about goosebumps, you might want to stay away from the frightful aspects of Halloween this year. Or put on a sweater as the temperatures drop.

You can also consult my book, Your Emotional Type, to learn how to identify your emotions and discover which mind-body therapies will work best for you. (You can order yourself a copy from the “books” tab of my website: www.DrMicozzi.com.)

Sources:

1“Cell Types Promoting Goosebumps Form a Niche to Regulate Hair Follicle Stem Cells.” Cell. 2020;182(3):578-593.e19.

2“Physiological correlates and emotional specificity of human piloerection.” Biol Psychol. 2011;86(3):320-329.

3“Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 6, June 2016, Pages 884–891.


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