Imagine swimming in a lake on a hot summer day. The water is quite warm, but the wind is strong and the moment you leave the water you feel chilly and get “goosebumps.” So you change clothes and move inside to warm up. You make a nice cup of tea, close the curtains, get under a blanket and switch on the television. You start watching a horror movie and suddenly a very scary scene starts to unfold. You feel a chill run down your back and again, you get goosebumps.
But have you ever wondered why you get them in the first place? And why do such seemingly unrelated events generate the same reaction in the body?
So, let us explore this hair-raising topic and find the answer to an interesting question —
Why do we get Goosebumps?
Goosebumps, also commonly known as ‘Gooseflesh,’ are the tiny bumps on your skin at the base of your hair follicles. They spring up involuntarily and are caused by various factors like an unexpected cold breeze, watching a scary movie, playing adventure sports, or even listening to a particularly emotional piece of music.
But why are they called goosebumps, you wonder? Well, their name is the most straight-forward thing about them. When geese are freshly plucked, their skin creates raised bumps where the feathers were. It’s the same with skinned chickens or any other poultry. Because of this visual similarity, we call them goosebumps.
But why do we humans get it?
Charles Darwin once investigated goosebumps by scaring zoo animals with a stuffed snake. He reached a conclusion that now is an accepted theory — goosebumps are something we’ve inherited from our ancestors, and similar to vestigial or useless body parts like wisdom teeth and the appendix, goosebumps actually are no more of much use to today’s human beings.
But scientists believe that millions of years ago when humans were all big, smelly and hairy, goosebumps played a vital role in their daily lives.
You see, our ancestors never had the luxury of clothes and generally wandered around half-naked, making them fall prey to ever-changing climatic conditions. And as the winter hit and our ancestral uncles felt cold, the adrenal glands got activated and released a hormone called adrenaline (also known as epinephrine).
This hormone is produced in the two small beanlike glands that are at the top of your kidneys. The release of this hormone causes the tiny muscles called ‘arrector pili,’ which are attached to the hair follicles to tense up and shrink, making the hair stand upright, and a little bit of skin around the hair protrudes like a flexing muscle, resulting in GOOSEBUMPS! This straightened hair helped to trap more air, which stopped the body heat from being lost, making our ancestral uncles feel better, cosier, and warmer!
Not only that, getting goosebumps is an automated response that we call reflex. Reflex is an action your body has automatically executed without you even thinking about it. This particular reflex of getting goosebumps is known as the pilomotor reflex and generally gets activated during a ‘flight or fight’ situation.
So, whenever our ancestors came across a deadly wild animal, adrenaline rushed-in and made their hair stand up to make them appear bigger to scare their enemies. We can still observe this phenomenon in our furry friends like cats or dogs. You must have seen their hair standing on end when they sense danger or feel afraid.
This is the reason why we modern humans still get goosebumps when we’re scared or cold, even though we’ve lost the advantage of looking scarier or staying warmer ourselves.
Also, what’s interesting to know is that strong emotions can also cause adrenaline to be released, which is why we get goosebumps in response to a strong memory or when we listen to certain kinds of music. A study even found that people who are more open to different types of music and to new experiences were more likely to get goosebumps and chills merely by listening to a particular tune.
You must be wondering that if goosebumps don’t perform any purpose now, then why have they been preserved through so many thousands of years of human evolution?
That is indeed a great question!
The answer to this question lies in a recent study conducted by scientists from Harvard University. According to the study, we still get goosebumps because the cell types that cause them are important for regulating the cells that regenerate our hair.
Underneath the skin, the nerve reacts to cold or fear by contracting the muscle and causing goosebumps in the short term. But in the long term, this contraction helps in activating hair follicle stem cells and new hair growth.
So yes, the goosebumps may not be helping us in scaring off our enemies or saving us from the cold anymore, but they are still playing an important function!
What’s more, another study from Harvard University found that goosebumps might actually be a sign of good health!
Those who experience goosebumps while listening to live music were found to be more positive, generous, creative, and more in touch with their emotions. This makes sense in relation to old-timey days when being healthy, strong, and full of goosebumps ( which meant full of hair ) increased your chances of scaring off would-be attackers.
So, now you know why we get goosebumps!
When was the last time you got goosebumps? Do you remember? Any scary movie that you recently watched or a song you listened to? Or perhaps a situation in your school?
We would love to hear your story! Do tell us in the comment section below.
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As a true introvert, Raza Mehdi shudders at the thought of having to expose very much of himself willingly and with malice-aforethought. Writing online since 2008; fiction, poetry, and articles on science, politics, humour and history. When he is not working, he is either trekking in mountains or sleeping. In his own words, the most apt description of him would be: Biryani on social media, daal chawal in person.
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