Home Biology Goosebumps : What's the Science behind it?

Goosebumps : What’s the Science behind it?

Last updated on July 13th, 2020 at 09:26 pm

If you feel a sudden, uncontrollable chill when you’re afraid, cold or emotional, why do you get goosebumps? Ever thought of that? This is because our biology made it so.

Thousands of years ago, before we were designated Homo sapiens, we were once in need of more primitive biological responses to help us deal with outside forces. Nature developed subtle responses to judge and respond to complex environmental sensations by hit-and-trial i.e., through natural selection. Thus, involuntary responses, such as goosebumps, were formed.

So how do goosebumps work, exactly?

Natural Response To Fear

Hair follicle is like a long stem growing out from the skin surface such that the base of is attached to tiny muscles. When these muscles contract, the skin tightens and as a result the hair stand straight. We call this phenomenon as goosebumps. The contraction of this muscle can be due to environmental stress such as cold temperatures or emotional stress such as fear.

You must have seen pictures of the early human, who had lot more hair on their body (like our primate ancestors) than the modern man (us). Back when our early primate ancestors were fully covered in hair from head to toe, the instant chill of goose bumps served a greater purpose. Living by the “eat or be eaten” law of the jungle as opposed to societies today (well in some respects the law still holds, lol), threats from predators was a desperate measure for survival. Attributes such as claws, roar or size have now been identified as some of the defining features predicting if an animal would confront the other. Since fear response needed to be quicker, as every second dictates if the human will live or not, it became a natural reflex of the body to erect the hair which makes the body appear bigger. It is highly likely that the large pointy spikes cause a visual response where they will appear to definitely hurt, if not kill, the animal that is about to confront the human (like in case of a porcupine when pestered or cats when startled).

The mechanism behind the response is that, with a larger appearance, we are more likely to scare off the enemy instead of being attacked as prey.

Helped Pre-Humans Stay Warm

In addition to making us look bigger and more intimidating to predators, goose bumps served a second purpose; keeping us warm.

Modern man, among evolutionary researchers known as “bald” primates, isn’t covered in hair as much as their predecessors. You’ll notice goose bumps occur when it’s cold out, as a human response to make us warmer and lock in heat by making our hair stand on end. At severe temperatures when the Earth’s climate wasn’t as forgiving or when humans hadn’t invented fire or warm apparel, the thick hairy coat is proposed to keep the body warm.

Having no need for that amount of hair on the body, nature gradually reduced the body hair density and length.

Skin, Shell, Gęsia, Goosebumps, Goose Skin, Cold

What About Music ‘Chills’?

Okay, so it makes sense that we get goose bumps when we’re cold or afraid. But what about those other “chills” we sometimes get, like when we get goosebumps from listening to music, for example?

If goosebumps are a natural human response to fear, then why do we feel them when we hear a moving musical piece? Being associated with an emotional response, anything that looks sensational provokes our reflexes such as goosebumps. Any strong emotion has the potential to raise goosebumps, such as joy, sadness, nostalgia and sexual arousal. Out of all the psychological responses though, goosebumps favor emotions of sadness and melancholy.

The music that gives you chills is probably squeaky noise for a duck, but the feeling that human associates with a given melody is what causes an emotional response. A sad piece of music appears so because someone can associate it with an experience or the powerful visualization of our brain can make us feel (in some cases as we say it, “live”) the emotion. Negative emotions can be really moving and can create strong physical responses in usual humans. These melancholy memories are actually the very thing that causes us to have goosebumps — so the music itself acts as a catalyst to remind us of our fears.

Our strongest emotional responses have a direct effect on the hypothalamus — the hormone distributor that controls our heart rate and responses such as sweating and goosebumps.

One of the many researchers, intrigued by this human response, believes this emotional response to the loss of a loved one may reflect an early biological mechanism humans developed when separated from a family member. The fact that such an intense psychological response is ingrained into our involuntary reactions means that it may have once served this important purpose at the time of its origins.

Video Courtesy – ” AsapSCIENCE ” 


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Abhijeet is a 4th-year Undergraduate Student at IIT Kharagpur. His major inclination is towards exploring the science behind the things of our day-to-day life.

Abhijeet Mahatohttp://scilynk.in
Abhijeet is a 4th-year Undergraduate Student at IIT Kharagpur. His major inclination is towards exploring the science behind the things of our day-to-day life.


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