Skin Reconsidered: Goosebumps
The sensation of goosebumps: the fizzing caused by warm breath on cold skin; an electric tingle, felt as an accompaniment to chattering teeth after a dip in freezing water; or a shiver snaking across a limb when a finger is traced along it can be disconcerting.
Goosebumps create the impression of being overwhelmed which can be at once thrilling and frightening, especially as they are a mutation of sorts - we watch them form on the skin, repelled yet fascinated. Their appearance can emphasise whatever feelings or physical responses we may be experiencing, increasing awareness of our emotions and further amplifying the intensity of our situation.
The signals they send out can be confusing too: our mind is telling us one thing, and our body is telling us another, due to the separate yet connected network of neural pathways in the nervous system which creates a disconnect between our physical and mental experience. Try as we might to suppress them, things felt but not consciously expressed are exposed by the body communicating on our mind’s behalf. Who would have thought that this strange yet familiar experience, characterised by the involuntary emergence of pinprick hairs could express so much?
The physical response of goosebumps has its origins in the animal response to fear, where the pilomotor reflex comes into play and the arrector pili muscles are tensed to raise the fur and make the animal appear bigger to predators. In their own small way, goosebumps form part of an overall armoury employed by the body to fight like with like. For a human, making oneself look bigger is antithetical to a situation where one might want to make oneself smaller, heightening goosebumps’ redundancy to contemporary social mores. The knowledge of the cause of goosebumps is paradoxical: we understand that their appearance means that we are cold, scared or excited without having to say a word. Their manifestation betrays our innermost fears and sensations.
The mechanisations which take place to create these little pimple-like appendages are complex, an interplay between the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the ‘fight or flight’ response and the hypothalamus, that portion of the brain which plays an important part in regulating body temperature. The sympathetic nervous system is also a division of the autonomic system, which is responsible for the body’s unconscious actions. So, goosebumps can be a sign of either a drop in body temperature, increased arousal, or a state of fear, sent out as a message for other people to decipher.
Although their occurrence can seem to be sudden, they can just as often creep upon us, as the temperature drops or as a sense of trepidation increases. Spreading like a veil over the surface area of the body - they can start from the neck: hairs standing on end and a prickling sensation working its way down the back, or sometimes gradually encroaching from the feet upwards. Or they can appear as localised protrusions, on a patch of ankle peeking from a pair of trousers when a gust of wind sweeps past. This corporeal takeover is a mirror to the cold external stimulus or hot anxiety that we may be feeling internally.
The tell-tale sign of goosebumps are the tiny mounds caused by the raising of the hair follicle. This muscular reaction forces the fine hairs on the body to stand erect, creating a halo of fuzz over the body’s entirety, an effect which gives the impression of vulnerability, reminding us of the baby-fine hairs of a newborn.
Goosebumps can exist in the moment, as a very sudden response to stimuli, and in memory, which is why they can be triggered when we hear a piece of music which has emotional significance or when we recall an intense event. The imagination also has its physical expression in this involuntary flexing and tightening of muscles around the hair follicle. And, surely, the thought is of goosebumps when someone is described as feeling something with ‘every fibre of their being’? This complete immersion in the moment is a rare and fleeting one but helps us to feel truly alive.
Goosebumps are a remnant of our evolutionary past, like the appendix or the coccyx. Although we have developed psychologically and technologically, these vestiges are a valuable way of reminding us of where we fit into the greater design of the universe. There is something humbling in the involuntary way in which they occur, as a little dig in the ribs from Mother Nature to let us know that we are not as advanced as we might think. They serve to remind us of our place in the order of things.
Text by Alexander Edmonds.
Alexander Edmonds is an anthropologist who has researched the cultural dimensions of the body and beauty. This essay is excerpted from his publications, Fleshly Beauty, Beauty and Health, and Body Image in Non-Western Societies.
Photography credit -
Iringo Demeter is a London-based, Romanian photographer who focuses primarily on portraits, editorial, and still life. Her minamalist style captures the smallest of details and highlights the body's silhouette.