Why Do Certain Experiences Give Us Goosebumps?

By: Jennifer Walker-Journey  | 

Goosebumps
Goosebumps can be triggered in humans by many different experiences, including but not only, cold temperatures. maik555/Shutterstock

Goosebumps, chills, heebie-jeebies — whatever you call them — are an oddly pleasant sensation that most of us experience when cold, overcome with emotion or are sexually aroused. They cause small puckers to form on our flesh (reminiscent of a plucked goose) and send chills down our spines.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why you get goosebumps? The answer is strangely primal.

"Goosebumps are very old evolutionarily," says Dr. Keith W. Roach, an internal medicine doctor and associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He's also the author of "To Your Good Health," a medical advice column syndicated in more than 150 newspapers.

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What Are Goosebumps?

Goosebumps are the result of piloerection, a temporary raising of the hairs on the surface of the skin that occurs when the piloerector muscles contract. These tiny muscles are attached to the individual follicles from which each hair arises. Piloerection is a voluntary response directed by the sympathetic nervous system (the one that triggers the "fight or flight" response), and is elicited by cold, fear or a startling experience.

Goosebumps have two functions that serve little purpose to less hairy, modern-day humans. "One is to keep us warm, which they don't do a very good job at on humans because we're not furry," Roach says.

For example, cold weather can trigger piloerection in mammals — as well as birds — causing their hair (or feathers) to stand up and then reset. This action creates a layer of air underneath the animal's fur that helps insulate their bodies from the cold temperatures.

Piloerection also occurs when animals perceive a threat is near. In this situation, when the piloerector muscles contract and cause the hair to rise, it creates a "fluffed up" appearance that makes the animal seem larger and may help deter an attack by other animals. Think: Halloween cat. So really, piloerection — or goosebumps — serve no real purpose in humans since we evolved to less hairy creatures.

Frightened black cat
Goosebumps, or piloerection, is a reaction in animals that causes their fur to stand on end. It signals they're frightened and perceive a threat is nearby.
Photo by Rafa Elias/Getty Images

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Goosebumps, Music and Our Emotions

Humans can also get goosebumps during moments of strong emotional experiences "and what's very interesting," Roach adds, "music and film are some of the ways that elicit emotional goosebumps."

Roach cites a January 2011 study published in Biological Psychology in which researchers measured subjective chills (similar to shivers down the spine) and visible piloerection in a group of volunteers as they listened to music and watched movies. The results were fascinating. Celine Dion's blockbuster hit "My Heart Will Go On," ranked a chill ratio ("shivers down the spine" effect) of 50 percent and a piloerection ratio (goosebumps on the skin) of 14 percent compared to Prince's "Purple Rain," which scored a 100 percent chill ratio and a 50 percent piloerection ratio.

What does music have to do with goosebumps? Enter Mitchell Colver, an instructor of special topics at Utah State University. Colver holds a bachelor's degree in music and psychology and, as a graduate student at Eastern Washington University in 2010, conducted a research study on the type of people most likely to get goosebumps. (See sidebar for more information.) The study was published in the March 2015 issue of Psychology of Music and became a viral sensation. It also made Colver one of the leading authorities on goosebumps.

"To better understand goosebumps, you have to understand that you have two brains — the emotional brain and the thinking brain — and they respond differently to things going on around you," he says.

The emotional brain is primal. Like a bunny in the forest, it is constantly looking out for threats and, when it finds one, the brain triggers an automatic physiological reaction, known as the fight-or-flight response. Since it triggers a survival response, the emotional brain activates immediately when it perceives danger, overriding the thinking brain.

When it comes to surprises, Colver references David Huron, author of Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation: "To your emotional brain, there's no such thing as a pleasant surprise."

"So, when there are sounds in the environment, including musical sounds, the emotional brain doesn't process it as music. It hears a person scream. It hears a high violin in a certain frequency and thinks it's a threatening noise," Colver says.

In terms of music, passages that include unexpected harmonies or sudden changes in volume can trigger chills because they "violate" the listener's expectations, essentially convincing the brain that something is going wrong.

Seconds later, however, the thinking brain chimes in and does a cognitive reappraisal of the situation. It recognizes the high notes as music, interprets it as nonthreatening, and shuts down the emotional brain and the goosebumps fade away. This "violation of expectations" lends itself to what Colver refers to as "aesthetic tension" — the buildup of tension caused by the emotional brain's reaction to a perceived threat followed by a release of that tension when the thinking brain recognizes the stimuli as pleasant, and signals the "all-clear."

listening to music
Listening to music has the ability to elicit strong emotions in humans. It also triggers things in our brains that cause goosebumps, but the reason why is super primal.
Hello World/Getty Images

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Is it Fear or is it Pleasure?

Remember the rabbit in the forest? In the animal kingdom, once a perceived threat is gone, the bunny returns to grazing. "But when we humans cognitively reappraise something as aesthetic beauty [rather than a true threat], we get a dopamine hit," Colver says. Dopamine is the body's "feel good" hormone. "And that's why, for humans, goosebumps are pleasurable."

The phenomenon of getting pleasurable goosebumps while listening to music actually has its own name — frisson, a French word meaning "aesthetic chill." Some researchers call it a "skin orgasm." And that makes perfect sense to Colver.

"We know that dopamine is flooding the same place of the brain that is flooded when a person orgasms. So, the fact that it's called skin orgasm is scientifically appropriate. When you think about it, an orgasm is a release following a great deal of tension," he says. "I don't think a lot of people realize that the joy of tension is the release. And great music creates and resolves psychological tension."

Speaking of sex, what about goosebumps that arise from touch such as tickling or during a sexual encounter? Are those reactions based in fear? Colver believes so.

"Remember, there's no such thing as a pleasant surprise," he says. Goosebumps that are elicited from touch or tickling often involve body parts that are usually covered or protected, putting us in a vulnerable position and triggering an immediate response from the emotional brain. This, of course, is followed by the thinking brain's reassessment and, if you're lucky, a good dose of dopamine to boot.

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