Have you ever wondered why you get goosebumps when you’re cold or when you listen to music you find thrilling? It’s one thing when it happens because we’re cold (though still a mystery perhaps), but when you’re watching a film where the hero is about to stand up to his nemesis and you feel those tingles down your spine it doesn’t really make much sense at all. Goosebumps are a strange phenomenon that clearly have no useful function in aiding our survival or anything else, so why does it happen and what precisely is going on?
Evolution and Goosebumps
As you may have guessed goosebumps are a hangover from our evolutionary history. This is what is known as a ‘vestigial trait’ meaning that it was once very useful for our survival but today has no real benefit.
While it might not seem to have much use today, what’s important to remember is that there was a time when we were covered in thick fur. And at that point goosebumps actually served a very important role.
Specifically, if we had long fur all over our bodies, then the goosebumps would cause that fur to stand on end which in turn would create a thicker layer of insulation. You’d have the same amount of fur covering you, but because it was all standing on end it would create large ‘gaps’ which would trap a layer of additional insulating air around your body. In that sense it’s a little like double glazing…
This makes sense then, but what about the goosebumps you get when you listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ or when you see Optimus Prime take his final stand against Megatron?
You can see an example of goosebumps acting in a similar way in nature by looking no further than a pet cat. Whenever a cat gets scared or angry, you’ll notice its hair stands up on end and at the same time it arches its back.
This happens for two reasons. For starters, being scared actually causes the same chemical release in the body as does being cold. Specifically this is the release of adrenaline – and when you’re cold or scared your body produces more of this in order to put you in the fight or flight response. As it happens, your skin doesn’t actually know the difference and will contract, causing your hairs to stand up on end (it’s called goosebumps because it looks like the skin of a plucked goose).
The other reason though is that goosebumps actually do have useful survival value in those scenarios if you have long fur. Specifically they make you look bigger which in turn makes you appear more threatening and thus hopefully scares off your attacker. It doesn’t really work so well for us unfortunately, because our hairs are so small as to just look pathetic when they stand on end. Oh well!
The Power of Goosebumps
So goosebumps were once powerful and advantageous, but are today pretty much useless. That might sound like a shame, but actually recent developments might mean they’re useful yet. That’s because scientists have managed to develop a device that can accurately measure the goosebump response by running electrical current through the skin (read more here). That means that they can actually measure our emotional responses to things.
How might this be useful? Well one obvious application would be in a film screening – which would enable the filmmakers to see which parts of their movies were registering with the audience on an emotional level. That would potentially allow them to engineer the ‘perfect movie’ in terms of stimulating emotional responses!
And in the meantime, you can actually use goosebumps yourself in a similar way – as a form of biofeedback. In other words, by paying attention to your own goosebumps you can see what sets you off emotionally, and it might just give you a bit of added insight into your own psyche!