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Wondering about goosebumps? Of course you are

They go by different names: goosebumps, goose pimples, goose flesh, and my personal favorite, goose bumples. The medical term is cutis anserine (cutis means skin and anser means goose). I guess the similarity in texture is just too close to goose skin to ignore. Other medical terms for goosebumps are horripilation, piloerection, or the pilomotor reflex.

Each of these terms describes a temporary change in the skin from smooth to bumpy, most commonly developing after exposure to cold.

Many people associate goosebumps with fear, or perhaps more accurately, with horror. Perhaps that’s why a popular series of children’s horror stories by R.L. Stine published in the 1990s was called Goosebumps.

Ever wonder why you get them? Do they serve a purpose? Why do they develop when we’re frightened?

What are goosebumps?

Goosebumps are the result of tiny muscles flexing in the skin, making hair follicles rise up a bit. This causes hairs to stand up. Goosebumps are an involuntary reaction: nerves from the sympathetic nervous system — the nerves that control the fight or flight response — control these skin muscles.

In the animal kingdom, a threatened animal has a similar reaction, causing fur to be puffed out a bit. This makes the animal appear bigger and more dangerous. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the porcupine, which puffs out its quills when sensing danger. This can make a threatening adversary think twice before attacking. That may explain why the sympathetic nervous system controls goosebumps — the reflex is tied into the fight or flight response.

This just in

Researchers studying mice recently linked goosebumps to the regeneration of hair and hair follicles. It seems that the nerves connected to the tiny muscles responsible for goosebumps also connect to hair follicle stem cells, which are the cells responsible for hair growth. So, in response to cold, the nerve tells the tiny muscles in the skin to contract (causing goosebumps) and the same nerve activates hair follicle stem cells for new hair growth.

What purpose do goosebumps serve?

Goosebumps may help you conserve heat when you’re exposed to cold. They may do this in several ways.

  • As with larger muscles, contraction of the muscles in the skin (called arrectores pilorum) generates heat.
  • The raised hair follicles cause skin pores to close.
  • Hairs standing up trap a layer of air near the skin, holding onto body heat.

Each of these might be more important for furry animals than for humans. In fact, it’s not clear how important goosebumps are in humans. For example, if you couldn’t form goosebumps at all, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that you’d have problems with temperature control. G

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Written by Shobha

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