Topic of the Day: Goosebumps

Goose bumps, or goose pimples, can happen when we are scared or get suddenly exposed to a chilly breeze.   The skin gets bumpy and our hair stands up more, giving rise to terms like “hair-raising scare.” Imagine sitting alone in an empty room in a dead-silent deserted house, when suddenly you feel an ice cold breath against the back of your neck…   Some kids might experience this by reading one of the Goosebumps books by R. L. Stine.

The term came from the bumps left on the skin of a goose after the feathers have been plucked. If you look closely at a frozen turkey or goose in the grocery store, you can see these bumps.   Here is a close-up view of goose bumps on a person’s arm, and also a close-up of a plucked chicken’s leg.  Which is which?

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Why do people get goose bumps? One theory is that this is a leftover reaction from ancient prehistoric times.   When faced with scary situations like a saber-toothed tiger wandering into their cave, the bodies of our hair-covered ancestors would respond to extreme fear by bristling out the hair all over their bodies to appear larger and more threatening to the predator.   Likewise, puffing out the hair in cold climates traps more air next to the body and provides a bit more insulation.

Goose bumps happen to not only people, but many animals and birds. Everyone has seen fur stand up on the backs of dogs or cats when they are frightened.

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If you watch birds sitting in trees on cold mornings, you may see them fluff their feathers out until they look much fatter than normal.   The “stand-up” action is caused by tiny muscles clustered around the root of each hair.   When frightened or chilled, the muscles react by tightening like a fist around the hair root, or follicle. This raises a bump where each hair grows out of our skin and makes the hair stand at attention.   When the conditions causing the fright or chill go away, the muscles relax, allowing the hair to settle back into normal posture that may be flatter to the skin for many people.

Interestingly, The word “horror” comes from the ancient latin “horrere,” which means “to bristle,” which is exactly what our skin is doing when we get spooked!