why do we get goosebumps when cold

Imagine walking down an empty street after dark, the cold wind whistling above your head, when a clatter of garbage cans from the alley behind you startles you. In that instant, not only do you walk a bit faster and take out your cell phone, but your body also reacts by releasing a truly mysterious defense it causes the hair on the back of your neck and arms toPstand up. Commonly known as goosebumps, this is one of the strangest physical reactions in the body, and one that many people don t quite understand. So. why do we get goosebumps when we re cold? Short Answer: Goosebumps are caused by the body s fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat. When the body perceives danger, either physically or physiologically, it will tense up the muscles and cause the hair on our arms to rise, along with those legendary goosebumps. While it may not seem like goosebumps provide much protection against physical danger or the environment, the fact that goosebumps have appeared on your body is a good thing. It means that your reflexes are working normally. More specifically, it means that your
pilomotor reflex is functional, which is the scientific name for the phenomenon of goosebumps. Essentially, the pilomotor reflex is a part of the fight-or-flight response, which is what animals undergo when they feel threatened in any way. It causes a flood of adrenaline in the body, which can help animals and people prepare to fight (defend themselves, etc. ) or flee (run away). Now, goosebumps don t only occur when you feel that your life is in danger or when you re about to run away from something. It can also be causedPwhen experiencing strong emotions of love, surprise or nostalgia.


Even thinking back to old moments filled with powerful memories can cause goosebumps. In many ways, the body doesn t differentiate between strong emotions, and merely flicks a switch for fight-or-flight preparation. When this adrenaline surge hits in a human, it can cause an unconscious tensing of the tiny musculature that is attached to each hair. The flexing of these minuscule muscles tugs the skin a bit tighter and causes those tiny bumps at the base of the hair to be exposed. The most common places to experience the pilomotor reflex is the back of your neck, legs and arms, as these are the most frequently exposed areas of skin (that have hair) and the sensation of those rising hairs can be quite strong. In humans, getting goosebumps is typically seen as a warning for an individual. If you feel goosebumps on your arms, you should probably put on a sweater, because your body is detecting a dangerous drop in temperature. If you feel goosebumps on the back of your neck, it may be a reaction to an anxiety-inducing situation, or a potential danger that your sixth sense has picked up on. However, the way that we use and think about goosebumps is not actually their intended purpose If you think humans are special because they occasionally get goosebumps, think again. The pilomotor reflex is something that has been handed down to humans over the course of evolutionary history. Many other animals experience this reflex of the skin when they feel threatened or endangered in some way. For hundreds of millions of years, animals have been relying on goosebumps to keep them safe and help them defend against predators.


The fundamental purpose of the pilomotor reflex is toPchange the orientation of hair on an animal s body. When the goosebumps appear,Panimals with a thick mane of hair suddenly increase the amount of air between their skin and their hair. This air acts as insulation, which keeps animals warm during the cold winter months. Therefore, when an animals begins to feel cold, its body reacts with adrenaline to defend against the threat, making the hair stand on end and boosting insulation so the animal doesn t freeze. The other vital function of the pilomotor reflex is for defense. When an animal feels threatened or afraid, or forced to fight a predator or rival, the burst of adrenaline causes their hair to stand on end, which makes them look larger to their opponent. In some cases, this can be enough to avoid a fight or scare their opponent enough to give them to make an escape. PIf you ve ever surprised your cat while it was napping, you ll notice how puffy its tail immediately gets the pilomotor reflex in action! While these basic functions of goosebumps don t help human beings much (minimal hair coverage and low levels of naked fighting), at least the next time you feel that tingle on the back of your neck, you ll understand exactly where it comes from! References: For the same reason cats fluff up when they're threatened. "The general principle is, if you are going to be attacked, try to look as big as you can," says David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University. People don't have as much hair as cats, but goose bumps are a holdover from when we were furrier.


Hair-raising itself began as a response to cold. When hair stands on end, it traps an insulating layer of air around the body. But at some point millions of years ago, one of our chilly, puffed-up ancestors scared away a would-be attacker, and hair-raising was slowly established as a useful defense mechanism. The heritage of this physiological response explains why fear is associated with cold. Puffing up was a matter of temperature first and fear secondБbut you can still get shivers down your spine when you're scared, Huron says. The upending of our expectations can give us chills, too, Huron says. And shivers can crop up when we feel any sort of surprise or intense emotion, even in music: a change in volume or the moment a singer begins singing. People usually get the chills at tonally "sad" passages, says Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. He also hypothesizes that certain tones in music mimic a "human separation cry," and that shivers result from the perception of losing a loved one. The same moment in the same song can give someone chills over and over againБthe response resists habituation, Huron says. "The brain can tolerate thousands of false alarms in order to protect us from the one occasion when the alarm is real," he says. Which is why when we know we are safeБat a scary movie, for exampleБthose false alarms can be a source of pleasure. "One part of your brain is saying, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna die! ' " Huron says. "But the conscious part is saying that everything is OK. Which makes shivers feel good. " Have a science question you've always wondered about? Send an email to

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