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Most people look at goosebumps, and think, “oh, there they are,” or something else unscientific. Do you ever wonder how goosebumps appear and why? Well, there are definite physiological reasons for this phenomenon, and in the following paragraphs, I will provide details about this extraordinary evolutionary trait.

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Just to get one thing clear: goosebumps are not of much use to us humans. According to George A. Bubenik, a professor of zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, “Goosebumps are a physiological phenomenon inherited from our animal ancestors, which was useful to them but are not of much help to us. Goosebumps are tiny elevations of the skin that resemble the skin of poultry after the feathers have been plucked. These bumps are caused by a contraction of miniature muscles that are attached to each hair” (Scientific American). So, essentially, they are happenings that aided poultry that have somehow been transferred to our genes. Like so many genetic traits of humans, goosebumps are almost entirely disposable—besides being indicators of sensations.

Professor Bubenik goes on to explain more about this physiological response. “Each contracting muscle creates a shallow depression on the skin surface, which causes the surrounding area to protrude. The contraction also causes the hair to stand up whenever the body feels cold. In animals with a thick hair coat, this rising of hair expands the layer of air that serves as insulation” (Scientific American). But, since humans do not have such a thick coat of hair, this response is rendered obsolete.

The main drive behind the phenomenon of goosebumps is emotion. Yes, goosebumps can be caused by a sudden chill in terms of temperature, but they can also as easily be caused by being frightened, being nostalgic, being excited by sound, and so on. Why is this? Professor Bubenik explains this:
The reason for all these responses is the subconscious release of a stress hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline, which in humans is produced in two small bean-like glands that sit atop the kidneys, not only causes the contraction of skin muscles but also influences many other body reactions. In animals, this hormone is released when the animal is cold or facing a stressful situation, preparing the animal for flight-or-fight reaction. In humans, adrenaline is often released when we feel cold or afraid, but also if we are under stress and feel strong emotions, such as anger or excitement. Other signs of adrenaline release include tears, sweaty palms, trembling hands, an increase in blood pressure, a racing heart or the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. (Scientific American)
Simply put, goosebumps is a sign that adrenaline has been released in our body due to an response to stimuli. However, there might be more to this story.

Should we ignore goosebumps because it is an evolutionary trait that is not that relevant to our current existence? I think we should still take goosebumps into consideration. Though it is a reflex action, getting ourselves in a flight or fight mode, we should take it seriously. Goosebumps can sometimes alert us to danger and prepare us for extreme measures. On the other hand, they can tell us what truly strikes a chord with us emotionally—though it may seem inexplicable at times (Wonderopolis). In fact, some scientists have studied the response to music and goosebumps and have concluded that this response is fueled by dopamine. With the release of dopamine, there are changes in our heart rate, breathing, temperature, and our skin’s electrical conductance. The pleasurability of music can be judged in large part to the presence of goosebumps (Nature Neuroscience).

Goosebumps, as we have seen, is a rather strange evolutionary trait we have inherited from poultry. How we have been transferred this genetic strain is a mystery at the moment, but how goosebumps are produced is not so much of a puzzle. In accordance with scary, cold, or intense moments, the body produces adrenaline, and one of the physiological responses to this release is the phenomenon of goosebumps. In addition, when we listen to sound that is emotionally stirring, dopamine is released in our body, and we can also experience goosebumps during these moments. Though scientists generally believe goosebumps are practically useless in humans, they could be seen as indicators of what inspires us and what makes us most insecure. In this sense, goosebumps can be sign posts in the discovery of ourselves.


“Why do humans get “goosebumps” when they are cold, or under other circumstances?” Scientific American,

“Why Do You Get Goose Bumps?” Wonderopolis,

Salimpoor, Valorie N.; Benovoy, Mitchel; Larcher, Kevin; Dagher, Alain; Zatorre, Robert J (2011-01-09). “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.” Nature Neuroscience. 14 (2): 256–262. doi:10.1038/nn.2726. PMID 21217764. Retrieved 2017-02-01.

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