If you’ve ever been cold or nervous, you’ve probably got those weird bumps on your arms before. Maybe you were cold and nervous, but that probably didn’t give you twice the goosebumps. What’s actually going on with your skin when you get them; why do we get goosebumps? Also while we’re at it, why are they even called goosebumps anyway? Geese will fight you.
When it comes to primates, us humans are pretty unique in that we’re pretty hairless. We’re the only primate with mostly naked skin, our body hair is thin compared to some of our thickly-coated compatriots.
Goosebumps are a pretty normal reflex, and they (very generally) occur when we’re under some kind of stress. If we still had thick coats, goosebumps would raise our body hair–making us look a little bigger to potential threats. That’s the whole “hair standing on end” thing you get when you feel anxious (IE, threatened). But then what about the cold? It’s not like you can fight winter itself and win.
Well raising hairs makes it easier to trap air within your coat. Makes it more insulating.
If you want to see how this would actually work without our naked skin, you can see this pretty clearly in housecats. Other primates, mice, rats, and even otters do it too. Porcupines do it too. In case you were wondering, their quills are also made of keratin–just like your hair.
How Do Goosebumps Work?
If you grow hair, you have a bunch of little hair follicles that your hair grows out of. These follicles also have little muscles called arrector pili muscles. They’re responsible for pulling your hair upright. When it comes to hair loss, the technology to re-stimulate follicles that refuse to grow hair anymore is still in its infancy. But we do know that the sympathetic nervous system is partly responsible for regulating hair follicles and hair growth. This means they are super tied to your fight or flight response. In tissue without sympathetic nerves, follicles were slow to respond to stress.
Why Call them Goosebumps?
It’s really just down to how feathers grow. Feathers create papillae in birds–which are “small rounded protuberances on a part or organ of the body.” Thanks Oxford. When feathers are plucked, bumps remain where those feathers were. Pluck all the feathers off of the goose and their skin looks like your arm when you have goosebumps.
Fun fact though, not all languages seem to use geese. Spanish has “piel de gallina,” which directly translates to “skin of [the] hen.” Dutch has “kippenvel,” or “chicken skin.” So the selection of poultry is quite arbitrary. Mostly because if you pluck a bird you’ll get a similar effect, regardless of whether or not it’s a goose.
Speaking of goosebumps, see if you know the titles of those books here. You know, the ones of the same name you probably read in grade school.