That Person Is So Awesome They Give Me Goose Bumps

I was sitting in an outdoor café yesterday, sipping a fine Trappist beer and watching the Olympics on the café’s big-screen TV, and I overheard some women at the next table talking about the male athletes we were watching. One of them described her favorite using the line I chose as the title for this article.

I chuckled quietly, because I had just finished reading a study in the journal Motivation and Emotion that was about goose bumps – what they are, why we experience them, and what they might mean or teach us about our physiological and emotional reactions to other people.

What are goose bumps?

Cutis anserine (the scientific name for goose bumps) are a form of piloerection. They appear as tiny bumps on your skin when you experience cold temperatures, but also when you experience strong emotions such as awe, fear, admiration, pleasure, and sexual arousal. They occur when the muscles beneath the skin contract, making the hair stand on end.

They are quite literally a form of erection, related to porcupines (who raise their quills when threatened), or to cats and dogs (whose hair stands up when they are startled or afraid). In animals, goose bumps are a form of protection, making the animal look larger, and thus hopefully scaring the enemy away.

But what are they in humans? Fear or being threatened can cause goose bumps, as part of the “fight or flight” reaction that occurs in stressful or dangerous situations. But that doesn’t explain the goose bumps we get when we listen to a beautiful piece of music, or see someone we are physically attracted to.

Goose bumps may be a kind of “skin orgasm”

That’s what the authors of the Motivation and Emotion study conducted at the University of Kentucky decided. They determined that goose bumps often occur in humans as the result of an “emotional climax” stimulated by coming into contact with a “powerful other.” They characterize the reaction as a combination of different reactions – first, possibly fear or surprise, often then followed by a more positive appraisal of the person or situation. In other words, goose bumps are associated with intense emotional reactions, and often reflect a contrast between our initial reaction to a person or situation and our subsequent appraisal of them.

The researchers asked subjects to keep a journal of the times that they experienced goose bumps, and rate the feelings they were having as they experienced them. They found (unsurprisingly) that the most common cause of goose bumps was exposure to cold. Following that, the most common cause of goose bumps was feelings of awe. Feelings of admiration also often caused the appearance of goose bumps, as did the emotions associated with fear and sexual desire.

Interestingly enough, one intense emotion that does not appear to result in goose bumps is envy. The researchers considered this notable, because although both are powerful emotions that may result from observing or interacting with others, awe tends to harmonize and stabilize social interactions, while envy disrupts and undermines them.

Although the overall meaning of this study is not yet clear, one thing is – you cannot fake goose bumps. They occur as a function of the sympathetic nervous system, which is automatic and not under our conscious control. They are in a way our body’s “emotional lie detector,” telling us that we’ve just had a strong emotional reaction to some person, situation, or other stimulus. What exactly that strong emotional reaction means may not be clear to us, but it’s good to know that we have a mechanism that tells us immediately when we’ve had one.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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