The Science behind Goose Bumps

Cutis anserina is the medical term for goose bumps (bumps on the skin at the base of the hair) . The term “cutis anserina” literally means “goose skin”. It is also known as chill bumps, goose flesh, chicken bumps, Dasler bumps, goose pimples, funky spots, and chicken skin. Goose bumps are caused by environmental, psychological and medical factors. These include cold, fear, sexual arousal, pleasure, admiration, nostalgia and awe.

Cutis anserina is an involuntary process (process that is not under control). Exposure to cold or a feeling any of the above mentioned emotions results in a nerve discharge from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), operates through a series of interconnected neurons.

This nerve discharge leads to contraction of arrectores pilorum (little erector muscles). Due to the contraction of these hair erector muscles, the hair follicles are raised above the rest of the skin. These elevations are perceived as goose bumps. Goosebumps are more prominent in the forearms.

Goose bumps are formed in many mammals like dogs, porcupines and sea otters. In most of the cases they are not visible due to the thick fur. Cutis anserina in animals (like chimpanzees and bear) make them appear larger. This serves to intimidate their opponents and is a great defense mechanism.

Goose bumps in animals living in cold regions (like polar bear) help them in retaining heat. The raised fur results in the formation of air pockets between the hair. This helps to trap body heat. Also the very process of contraction of muscles generates warmth, which helps the animal. 

Many music lovers have reported experiencing goose bumps after listening to soul stirring music. Canadian scientists have unraveled this mystery. Their research studies (published in the journal Nature Neuroscience) have revealed that when people are moved by good music, our brains behave as if reacting to delicious food, money or psychoactive drugs.

Dopamine (a catecholamine neurotransmitter) drives this pleasure experience. This experience leads to physical changes in the body, like goose bumps. During the research it was found that dopamine release was more when listeners had a strong emotional response to music. Goose bumps may also be formed after listening to unpleasant sounds (like the sound produced by scratching a chalkboard with your fingernails).

Goose bumps (ictal piloerections) are observed in one percent of patients affected by stroke and seizure. It is also observed during withdrawal from an addiction (alcohol or drugs). The process of formation of goose bumps is just one among many processes in the wonderful human body.