The science behind goosebumps

Whether you call them cutis anserine, horripilation or just plain “chicken skin,” goosebumps are a mysterious part of our bodies’ fight or flight response. So why do our hairs stand up when we feel fear, cold or intense emotion? As we find out in this segment from NPR science reporter, Adam Cole, there’s more to those bristling bumps than you might think.


Whether you call them cutis anserina, horripilation, or just plain chicken skin, goose bumps are a mysterious part of our body's fight or flight response.

So why do our hairs stand up when we feel fear, cold, or intense emotion?

As we find out in this segment from NPR Science reporter Adam Cole, there's more to those bristling bumps than you might think.


Why do we get goose bumps?

Sometimes it starts with fear.

The word 'horror' actually comes from a Latin word that means 'to bristle,' and the technical term for goose bumps is horripilation.

When you get scared, little glands on top of your kidneys release a stress hormone, adrenaline.

It rushes through your bloodstream, preparing your body for fight or flight.

It widens your airways and raises your heart rate so your muscles will have plenty of oxygen.

It dilates your pupils so your eyes can take in more light and see enemies in the shadows.

And in your skin, adrenaline causes tiny muscles to contract, producing bumps and making your hairs stand on end.

The medical term is cutis anserina.

'Cutis' means 'skin,' and 'anserina' means 'goose.'

Goose bumps look like the skin of a plucked bird, and apparently cultures all over the world notice that similarity, from Russia... to Japan... to Spain.

But in parts of Vietnam, they call it something like snail bumps, which also makes a lot of sense.

Unlike most human fight or flight responses, goose bumps don't seem like they'd help you out in a crisis.

But imagine you were a cat.

Fluffing up your hair would make you look bigger, less of an easy target.

If you were a hedgehog or a porcupine, goose bumps would raise your quills.

Goose bumps can also help mammals survive when it's cold out.

Fluffed up fur traps an insulating layer of air and helps them stay warm.

Our ancestors were hairy, and so, for them, goose bumps were useful.

We modern humans don't have much hair, but we still get goose bumps when we're cold or scared.

And lots of other times, too.

Scientists have studied chills brought on by getting a head massage, drinking lemon juice, looking at a picture of a kid, hearing fingernails on a chalkb-- Let's -- Let's not do that one.

And even listening to music.

[ Classical music plays ] Scientists have discovered that different people get goose bumps listening to different songs.

♪ She's an easy lover ♪♪ ♪♪

But why?

None of these things are that critical to our survival.

In fact, many of these experiences bring us pleasure.

These goose bumps might have something to do with feeling intense emotion.

We're so surprised or moved that, for a moment, our brains think there's an emergency.

And then when we figure out that there's no threat, we feel good.

That's probably why people are strangely drawn to horror.

Joining me now is Adam Cole, the creator and host of NPR Science YouTube channel Skunk Bear.

So, why is it that just thinking about this story has actually started to give me little goose bumps?

What's the power of goose bumps?

Well, I think it's especially interesting in humans, because a lot of species get goose bumps, right?

And it's pretty straightforward.

They're cold or they're scared and they want to look bigger, and so they puff up their feathers or their fur.

But for humans, there's so much more going on.

We can imagine something that makes us feel fear, and that will give us goose bumps.

We can also feel positive emotions like awe or just appreciation of things like music, and that might give us goose bumps.

I mean, what's the benefit that we get from that?

We don't look bigger.

You know, technically goose bumps might increase our size by a very, very small fraction, but why do we -- What's our --

Well, that's an interesting question and one that's not completely known.

One of the more interesting theories that I heard when I was doing the research for this video was that it's very beneficial for us to feel good when we feel in awe of something because that's a force that brings together communities.

So if you are confronted by a great leader and you're sort of a little bit intimidated -- Wow, that person's powerful -- if you don't have a positive way to respond to that, there's gonna be a lot of conflict in your society.

But if you can see that person and kind of feel chills, if you listen to Martin Luther King speak and you feel chills, that's something that brings a community together.


All right, so what are some of the things that give us goose bumps on a person?

Almost pictures or music, how is it that these kind of different senses all trigger goose bumps?

Well, I think it all comes back to that emotional -- the emotional basis of goose bumps.

Some of the things just don't make any sense to me at all.

One of the things mentioned in the video was drinking sour juices, which -- I mean, how does that -- There's some sort of discomfort or -- You know, there's a lot going on in our brains.

There's some wires crossed, I think, but some of these go back to emotions, some of them -- It's hard to say.

All right, Adam Cole from Skunk Bear, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.