Whether it’s in response to a chill in the air or an especially tasteful guitar solo, it’s often thought that goosebumps are largely out of our conscious control — but that might not always be the case.
Some people possess the unusual ability to control their goosebumps at will, flicking them on and off like a light switch. Perhaps most peculiar of all, early research has indicated that people with certain personality traits, namely a high level of openness, might be more likely to have goosebumps-on-command compared to others.
Goosebumps are an evolutionary leftover from our ancestors. In a moment of flight or fight, tiny muscles around the hair follicle contract, causing the hair to rise and making the animal appear larger and more intimidating. For us largely hairless apes, however, it most often appears as little more than a few hairs sticking up and some goosebumps on the skin. This is often considered an involuntary reaction, controlled by nerves from the sympathetic nervous system that regulates the body’s unconscious actions. So, given our current understanding, it should be physiologically impossible to control this action on cue. Nevertheless, it appears that some people do have conscious control of this action.
In a 2018 study, published in the journal PeerJ, researchers from Northeastern University gathered 32 people who were able to demonstrate their voluntary control of piloerection, the scientific name for the contraction of small muscles at the base of hair follicles that cause goosebumps. Most of these participants explained that it was extremely easy for them to generate goosebumps at will. In fact, they were surprised that most people didn’t have this ability.
“I think about goosebumps, they start to appear, I shudder/shiver, and there they are,” one remarked.
“I just think about the act of having goosebumps and focus a little on the nape of my neck,” another said.
As part of this study, the participants were asked to complete a survey about their personalities, as well as other questions about goosebumps. The team found that all of the people who could control their goosebumps display higher levels of openness. This is a personality trait that generally refers to a person’s tendency to have a greater receptivity to new ideas and new experiences. These people tend to be more creative, imaginative, and curious, as well as have a greater appreciation for art and beauty.
The researchers note that there’s no way to explain why people with high levels of openness possess this skill. Since the study had a very small sample size, it may just be sheer chance that their participants all displayed higher levels of openness. To dive deeper into the mystery, the study authors expressed a desire to follow up their research with a larger study involving more people.
An earlier version of this article was published in March 2021.
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