The Odd Psychology of Goosebumps

What do the shivers say about your personality?

Posted Jan 15, 2017

Piotr Braniewski/Shutterstock
Source: Piotr Braniewski/Shutterstock

“Skin Orgasm” might be a great name for a punk band or a body lotion, but it’s also another term for goosebumps. 

Physiologically speaking, your hair stands on end when your arrectores pilorum muscles contract after your nervous system detects a stimulus like cold or fright.  For most mammals, it’s an adaptation that modifies body temperature by providing more insulation. Chimpanzees, dogs, and cats have evolved a secondary “social warning” function where the raised hair means danger is at hand (Chaplin, et al., 2014). My chocolate Lab sports mohawk hair along his spine even when the neighbor’s dainty little Bichon strolls by. Go figure.

Approximately two thirds of us regularly experience “the shivers” with art—this is the feeling that's been dubbed skin orgasm. You might be in this group if you’ve ever felt the chills while watching a dramatic movie scene or listening to an awe-inspiring piece of music. A fan of classical music might feel a tingle down his back from the opening flute lines of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. My personal favorite is the haunting and commanding chorus in Carmina Burana. Speaking of power, how about the brass section blasting the very first notes in the Rocky theme song? Or the hairs on the back of your neck might rise in a piloerection (from Latin pilo meaning “hair”) brought about by John Cusack’s boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes" in Cameron Crowe’s classic teen flick Say Anything.

An “aesthetic chill” can happen whenever there is a quick change in volume, key, melody, or anything else that affects the atmosphere of a song. Part of the responsibility of an artist is to create music that moves the soul and takes you on an emotional journey. There are certainly go-to tricks and intensely emotional chords employed by filmmakers and musicians, but there is no set way to manufacture this sensation on command. 

However, personality plays a role. The five factors most widely used to classify personalities are conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extroversion. Collectively, these “Big Five” factors do a nice job of capturing many of the important dimensions that make us who we are. It is not a diagnostic tool that assesses abnormality or mental illness (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, depression, schizophrenia, etc.), but it is able to capture many of our interesting nuances.

For example, individuals who score high on the Openness factor are prone to piloerections from emotional and dramatic events. They enjoy the frisson that comes from watching YouTube videos of hockey player Mario Lemieux taking the ice for the first time after overcoming Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s similar to the shudder of emotion one gets from listening to unedited footage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech.

The element of surprise is what connects the psychology of openness and the physiology of goosebumps. The first time I heard John Bonham’s bombastic drums fall from the sky on "Stairway to Heaven," I wasn’t expecting it. Aesthetic chills usually include a violation of expectations with a rapid change—in tone, volume, melody—that wasn’t anticipated. People high on the Openness factor intentionally seek out and enjoy new experiences that break from normal patterns; it’s just what they do.

References

Chaplin, G., Jablonski, N.G., Sussman, R.W., & Kelley, E.A. (2014) The role of piloerection in primate thermoregulation. Folia Primatol, 85, 1-17.