Goose Bumps

pilomotor reflex by boots


Goose bumps (‘cutis anserina,’ also called ‘goose pimples’ or ‘goose flesh’) are bumps that develop on human skin at the base of body hairs in response to cold. They can also occur involuntarily as the result of strong emotions such as fear, nostalgia, pleasure, euphoria, awe, admiration, or sexual arousal. The same effect is manifested in the root word ‘horror’ in English, which is derived from Latin ‘horrere,’ which means ‘to bristle,’ and ‘be horrified,’ because of the accompanying hair reaction.

The reflex of producing goose bumps is known as ‘arasing,’ ‘piloerection,’ or the ‘pilomotor reflex.’ It occurs in many mammals besides humans; a prominent example is porcupines, which raise their quills when threatened, or sea otters when they encounter sharks or other predators. Small muscles at the follicles raise the body’s hair to make the animal appear larger and more imposing when facing predators. The formation of goose bumps in humans under stress is considered by some to be a vestigial reflex. In furred animals, the cold response erects hairs to trap air, creating a layer of insulation.

The phrase ‘goose bumps’ derives from the phenomenon’s association with bird skin. Feathers grow from stores in a bird’s epidermis which resemble human hair follicles. When a bird’s feathers are plucked, its skin has protrusions where the feathers were, and these bumps are what the human phenomenon resembles. It is not clear why the goose in particular was chosen for the label in English. Some authors have applied the term to the symptoms of sexually-transmitted diseases. ‘Bitten by a Winchester goose’ was a common euphemism for having contracted syphilis in the 16th century. ‘Winchester geese’ was the nickname for the prostitutes of South London, licenced by the Bishop of Winchester in the area around his London palace.

However, this etymology does not explain why many other languages use the same bird as in English. ‘Goose skin’ is used in German, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, Icelandic, Greek, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Latvian, and Hungarian. It should be noted that in other languages, however, the ‘goose’ may be replaced by other kinds of poultry. For instance, ‘hen’ is used in Spanish (‘piel de gallina’), Portuguese, Romanian, French (‘chair de poule’), and Catalan. ‘Chicken’ is used in Dutch (‘kippenvel’), Chinese, Finnish, Estonian, Afrikaans, and Korean. The equivalent Japanese term, ‘torihada,’ translates literally as ‘bird skin.’ In Hebrew it is called ‘duck skin.’ All of the birds listed above are commonly consumed in the country of origin, so it may well be assumed that the terms came into being merely due to the visual similarity of the bird’s plucked skin and the human skin phenomenon, used to describe the sensation in a way that is readily familiar.

Goose bumps are created when tiny muscles at the base of each hair, known as arrector pili muscles, contract and pull the hair erect. The reflex is started by the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for many fight-or-flight responses. People often say they feel their ‘hair standing on end’ when they are frightened or in awe. In an extremely stressful situation, the body can employ the ‘fight or flight’ response. As the body prepares itself for either fighting or fleeing, the sympathetic nervous system floods the blood with adrenaline (epinephrine), a hormone that speeds up heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature in the presence of extreme stress. Then the sympathetic nervous system also causes the piloerection reflex, which makes the muscles attached to the base of each hair follicle contract and force the hair up.

The anger or fear response can be observed in the intimidation displays of chimpanzees, in stressed mice, and in startled cats. In humans, the response it can even extend to hearing nails scratch on a chalkboard, listening to awe-inspiring music, or feeling or remembering strong and positive emotions (e.g., after winning a sports event, or while watching a horror film). Moreover, there are rare accounts of people who are able to deliberately evoke goose bumps in themselves without any external trigger. Goose bumps are accompanied by a specific physiological response pattern that is thought to indicate the emotional state of being moved. During the formation of goose bumps, the body is warmed from the muscle tension in piloerection.

In humans, goose bumps are strongest on the forearms, but also occur on the legs, neck, and other areas of the skin that have hair. In some people, they even occur in the face or on the head. Piloerection is also a classic symptom of some diseases, such as temporal lobe epilepsy, some brain tumors, and autonomic hyperreflexia. Goose bumps can also be caused by withdrawal from opiates such as heroin. A skin condition that mimics goose bumps in appearance is ‘keratosis pilaris,’ a common follicular condition characterized by the appearance of rough, slightly red, bumps on the skin.

One Comment to “Goose Bumps”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.