Why Do We Get Goosebumps
By Ariella Jacobs - December 30, 2021

Goosebumps is a common term that originates from the German word “gänsehaut”, which means “goose skin”. In modern English, it refers to an unusual sensation on the skin. A large part of this phenomenon has been attributed to the action of tiny muscles attached to each hair follicle on your skin, which causes the follicle to stand on end. This is known as piloerection. The medical term for goosebumps is horripilation. The presence of this particular sensation has been reported back as far as ancient Rome, though it’s unclear how many of these reports are accurate or merely metaphorical references. Pliny the Elder claimed that it was caused by the action of cold air descending from high mountains, while Aristotle attributed it to coldness. One of the most common reasons for goosebumps is fear. This was observed by Charles Darwin in 1872, who included several examples in his book “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”. He noticed that a dog gets goosebumps on his back before a fight.

Getty Images/Moritz Wolf

A full survey of the available scientific literature shows that the question of how and why humans get goosebumps has not been fully resolved, but scientists have different theories about what causes goosebumps. However, in a general sense, when we get goosebumps it is usually because of two reasons: 1) for warmth and protection from the elements or 2) to detect small changes in surface texture. In other words, our body tries to regulate its body temperature by increasing blood flow under the skin so that heat can be conserved in cold weather or to detect changes in the surface of our skin that would indicate an object is rough, hard, or sharp. Another potential cause of goosebumps is an emotional response to stimuli such as anger, fear, or cold temperature. According to this theory, when we get angry, our adrenal glands release adrenaline which causes the hair follicles on our arms and legs to stand up in order to make our body appear bigger and look more intimidating.

Some people believe that they were simply divine messages or the result of an evolutionary process while others think it is a product of how our brain interprets messages from the peripheral nervous system. There are some people that subscribe to the emotional response theory, but what seems to be agreed upon is that everybody experiences goosebumps at one time or another. One of the most popular theories is that goosebumps are a product of evolution and were initially generated for warmth on primates in cold climates. In other words, our body generated these bumps to make us appear bigger and warmer during the winter months when food sources were scarce. Since there is no universal agreement on why we get goosebumps, it is likely that all of these theories contain some grains of truth. What does seem clear, however, is that they are a common condition for most people and nothing to be concerned about.