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What Causes Goosebumps?

  • Published6 Dec 2019
  • Author Michael W. Richardson
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN
woman with goosebumps looking out on a cliff

Lots of things can make your hair stand on end, from a cool breeze tickling your neck to a sense of impending danger. You might also experience goosebumps when you hear an inspirational speech or song. But it’s not because the tune is beautiful, or the words are just right — it’s because part of your brain thinks you may be in peril. We asked Mitchell Colver of Utah State University about goosebumps: what are they, what causes them, and who is most likely to experience the sensation.

What are goosebumps?

The scientific term for hair standing on end is piloerection. It’s a reflex that causes tiny muscles near our hair follicles to contract and raise the hairs. This can be caused by a number of stimuli — for example, a cool breeze on a warm day. This is an evolutionary holdover from when we were hairier and can still be seen in our primate cousins. The cool breeze will cause the hair to raise and then fall back, where it will trap warm air close to the skin and help warm the body back up.

Another cause of piloerection is the sympathetic nervous system. This is a series of autonomous reflexes that are activated when danger is sensed and manages a bunch of physical reactions to get ready for action. In addition to quickening the heart rate and activating the sweat glands, the body raises our hair in order to look bigger and tougher to a potential threat, much like a cat who’s about to fight.

Interestingly, this reaction to danger is also what causes goosebumps from musical stimuli.

How and why does music activate the sympathetic nervous system?

You can divide the human brain in two. We have an emotional brain and a cognitive brain. And our emotional brain — which is responsible for our response to threats — responds quicker to external stimuli than our cognitive brain. When we’re listening to music, our emotional brain simply recognizes it as noise. Our cognitive brain is what identifies melody, rhythm, and all the factors that makes music pleasurable and moving.

Music that causes goosebumps doesn’t do so because it’s simply beautiful. It’s because specific noises can trigger that sense of danger.

Goosebumps are typically caused by the unexpected. Perhaps a new instrument is introduced, or the singer hits a particularly high note, or the music gets suddenly louder. Like a branch snapping behind you in the woods, your emotional brain immediately treats this new sound like a potential threat, and for good reason. For example, we use the music of Pink Floyd to study goosebumps because their wailing vocals can mimic the sound of a child in distress, which would cause most people to prepare to jump into action. Or if you’re listening to a live album, the roar of a crowd can cause goosebumps because your emotional brain just hears thousands of people yelling at you. Similarly, an emotional speech might cause this response when the speaker gets suddenly louder or the crowd starts cheering.

It’s only after the emotional brain responds that the cognitive brain takes over, milliseconds later. And it can immediately recognize that there’s no real danger. The response shifts from fear to pleasure, and the brain releases dopamine as a reward for correctly assessing the lack of an actual threat. That dopamine causes a wave of good feelings, and you recognize the stimuli as enjoyable again.

What makes certain people more prone to goosebumps than others?

It actually has to do with personality traits. In psychology, there are the big five traits, such as openness, that are further divided into subcategories. It used to be thought that people who were more likely to experience goosebumps ranked higher on openness to emotion , a trait associated with appreciation of beauty and variety. That makes a certain amount of sense, because music is emotional. But when we hooked volunteers up to skin monitors and played music for them, we were able to objectively monitor when and how often people were getting goosebumps. This was different from previous studies, where volunteers self-reported how often they were experiencing them. And what we found was that the people who were ranked high on emotional openness were overreporting their experiences — one subject indicated that they got goosebumps dozens of times over the course of one song, when the skin monitors didn’t pick up anything.

What we found was that people who were ranked high on openness to ideas were actually more likely to get goosebumps. While this is related to emotional openness, this trait is more associated with imagination and curiosity. I believe that active listening and engaging intellectually with the music — such as predicting what will happen next in a song or imagining the imagery it evokes — is the key to experiencing goosebumps, not just letting the music wash over you emotionally.

Colver, M. C., & El-Alayli, A. (2016). Getting aesthetic chills from music: The connection be-tween openness to experience and frisson. Psychology of Music, 44(3), 413–427. doi: 10.1177/0305735615572358

Craig, D. G. (2005). An Exploratory Study of Physiological Changes during “Chills” Induced by Music. Musicae Scientiae, 9(2), 273–287. doi: 10.1177/102986490500900207

Tihanyi, B. T., Ferentzi, E., Beissner, F., & Köteles, F. (2018). The neuropsychophysiology of tingling. Consciousness and Cognition, 58, 97–110. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2017.10.015

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