Voluntary goosebumps are 'definitely a thing,' study finds

A new study looks at how some people are able to give themselves goosebumps and what the ability to control that sensation might tell us about the nervous system.

Conjuring goosebumps on command is 'a tiny superpower' that may offer clues into how the nervous system works

A new study looks at why some people can give themselves goosebumps voluntarily and what that might tell us about how the nervous system works. (Thanaporn Pinpart/Shutterstock)
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Normally people get goosebumps when we are hit with a cold blast of air, or when we are faced with something eerie that freaks us out. In other words, something external. 

But researchers at Northeastern University in Boston feel they've made a breakthrough in the study of horripilation — better known as goosebumps.

The paper, published in the journal PeerJ, says a small number of people can just give themselves goosebumps — without any kind of external stimulus. 

As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway spoke to psychophysiologist James Heathers, one of the study's lead authors, to learn more about the curious findings.

Here is part of their conversation.

The understanding is that you shouldn't be able to do this, right? That this is something that happens involuntarily, not something that you can control?

Absolutely. And that's why there's been three case studies on it in more than a century, which is a grand total of three people, ever, really, before our study.

We assume that the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that operates outside of conscious control, is not something that you have conscious access to.

Can you do this?

No, I can't. I wish I could, and people in my studies have tried to teach me on more than one occasion. [They've] outlined the steps that they took, but I absolutely cannot.

Since the interest that the study has had recently, I've had probably more than 50 people who've contacted me in the last little while and say, "I've been able to do this all my life and this is how it works."

They all describe the same thing and none of them have ever met each other. It's very definitely a thing.

What do they describe to you? 

There's a funny little cascade that happens.

First of all, they make a decision about what they want to do. Then they describe a tension or an energy that builds at the back of their head, or some part of their neck, maybe behind their ear. That energy sort of travels down their spine and starts to radiate out into their limbs.

Generally, where they see it come through most strongly is a few seconds after that the goosebumps on their forearms start to raise, and then the goosebumps on their legs.

Obviously, it's not an energy; it just feels like an energy. But that is how they describe the sensation.

James Heathers is a researcher at Northeastern University who published a study on voluntary goosebumps. (Submitted by James Heathers)

You said that they've offered you steps or tips on how to do this. Try them out on me. What would I need to do?

OK, we'll have a go. Let's see what happens.

The first thing you need to try and do [is] exhale completely and then inhale completely.

As you are inhaling completely, try to keep your chest up and focus your attention on the back of your head, like you were trying to pull your ears back.

Try to remember what the sensation of goosebumps is like — when you see a great work of art or you hear a great piece of music that really touches a chord inside you.

It's not much to go on, is it?

Nothing's happening.

No [laughs]. 

Some of them do it all the time — just because it feels nice. The same way you'd rub a knot out of your forearm or you'd scratch an itch, they give themselves goosebumps. - James Heathers, lead author

These tips, these techniques, can people actually learn how to do this?

I have absolutely no idea yet. But I'm going to keep getting tips and we're going to keep trying them because the answer to whether or not you can learn it has a great deal of potential to teach us something about how the nervous system works.

It rewrites what we know, to some small degree, about how goosebumps themselves are actually wired. We think of them as being completely automatic. 

It shouldn't technically be possible and anything we can learn about how the nervous system is wired is potentially useful for a variety of reasons.

Scientists, a lot of time, give themselves the freedom just to be curious about something. A lot of the time we don't know where it might lead.

But the other interesting part is that people who can do this have a personality characteristic that we don't quite understand. A lot of them are very open people. They're what we call in personality psychology ... very high in openness to experience. 

People who can do this have told you that it feels like they have some sort of superpower?

Yeah, people have used the phrase, "tiny superpower" or "very mild superpower."

The thing is, very few people don't like the experience. The vast majority of people who can do this quite like the experience of doing it.

Some of them do it all the time — just because it feels nice. The same way you'd rub a knot out of your forearm or you'd scratch an itch, they give themselves goosebumps. 

Written by Nathan Swinn and John McGill. Produced by Nathan Swinn. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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