Images: Ty Johnson
If you are a human being like most of us at Noisey (Eds. note: "most of us" is correct), at some point in your life you've experienced goosebumps—and not just when you wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling that there's someone else in the room. When you get that chill down your spine when you hear a song you love, or are in that moment you know is going down as special.
It happened to me more than a few times this year at Golden Plains's tenth-anniversary. I wanted to find out why my skin went weird when I was listening to Bowie on Gold FM, seeing Buzzcocks play "I Don't Mind," hearing Royal Headache rip through "Another World," and loving the entirety of Eddy Current Suppression Ring's reformation set.
To understand the phenomenon a little better I spoke to Dr. Freddy Vista, who is more qualified to talk about skin conditions than I am.
Noisey: Hey doc, what's up with getting goosebumps when you're having a good time to do with music—what's going on here?
Dr Freddy Vista: Goosebumps are due to a phenomenon called piloerection, which is where your hairs stand straight up (pili = hair, erection = erection). This is due to tiny muscles contracting around the bases of each hair follicle. It can occur as a response to cold, as a part of the body's "fight or flight" reaction to very stressful or threatening situations, or as a response to strong emotional experiences.
So we become one big hairy erection. Got it. But why?
Goosebumps are probably a remnant of very old temperature-control mechanisms. Fur-covered mammals can retain heat by having their hair stand on end (by means of creating an insulated air layer close to the skin). The fight or flight pathway topiloerection is part of the body's response to adrenaline release (along with increased heart rate, faster breathing etc). This is probably also a byproduct of our furrier mammalian ancestors, having all of your hairs standing up can make you look bigger in threatening situations.
That's pretty cool.
The more pleasant experience of goosebumps you're talking about though—as part of the "chill" you get when listening to certain types of music, for example—has a slightly different pathway.
Yeah, I wasn't feeling that worried for my life.
Studies of the brain have shown that this experience is associated with reward pathways. It's not entirely clear why your brain's reward pathways are triggered by certain sensory experiences. Mediated by dopamine release, these are the similar areas that are involved in arousal and addiction. There is also a partial activation of the sympathetic nervous system as a result, which adds adrenaline to the mix and is probably the direct cause of the goosebumps. This explains the "rush" feeling.
Arousal? Erections? This is a way sexier explanation than I thought it was going to be.
It turns out that some experiences are much more likely to cause goosebumps in any given person (although only about half of people do get them). Music appears to be the most powerful trigger, although visual and tactile stimuli can also cause them. More specifically, it seems as though music that triggers a certain emotional state, that of feeling "moved," which is clearly linked to getting goosebumps.
That pretty much sums up what I was feeling yeah.
Some researchers have suggested that this emotion is actually a subset of sadness, and that the experience may be an evolutionary relic of separation distress. While this is at odds with the reward pathway evidence, there does seem to be a link between goosebumps and music evoking loss - "My Heart Will Go On" has often been used as a trigger in controlled studies.
Next time you hear sappy music being played in public, have a quick look at people's forearms. Regardless of what they say, if they are moved by Celine Dion, their bodies will not lie. I think that's pretty funny.
I feel smarter, thanks.