For most of us, goose-bumps are something that happens outside of our conscious control, either when we’re cold or afraid, or because we’ve been moved by music or poignant art. However, it seems there are a few individuals with a kind of psychophysiological super-power – they can give themselves goose-bumps at will.
For a new study, which they’ve released as a pre-print at PeerJ, a team led by James Heathers at Northeastern University, Boston, created a Facebook group with descriptions of “voluntary piloerection”, to use the technical term, and invited anyone with this ability to complete a comprehensive questionnaire. Thirty-two voluntary goose-bumpers took part. Though the results are preliminary, this is a landmark study considering that voluntary piloerection has not previously been subject to systematic investigation, and that the scientific record contains just three prior case studies over a period of more than a century.
The average age of the individuals who answered the survey was 32 and there were many consistencies in their descriptions of their goose-bump ability, closely matching the few obscure accounts in the existing medical literature. Nearly three quarters said that the voluntary sensation or action began on the back of their head or neck; many described a shiver or tingle down the spine; and ninety per cent said the sensation manifested on their arms, among other body areas. The participants overwhelmingly described their ability as a voluntary act, akin to deciding to move, as opposed to using their imagination or memories to cause the goose-bumps. They saw it as a normal, harmless activity and many were surprised to learn that others cannot do it.
“I tighten a muscle behind my ears … and the goosebumps appear on my back and then travel to my arms”
“I think about goose-bumps, they start to appear, I shudder/shiver, and there they are”
“I simple [sic] think of doing it. I don’t need to have a [sic] emotion involved, in fact I can do it now without feeling any emotion whatsoever”
“I flex a ‘muscle’ in my brain. Sometimes I have to concentrate a little if I’ve been doing it a while”
Most of the participants said that they noticed their ability in adolescence or early adulthood; two said they only realised they had the ability after reading the description on Facebook (leading the researchers to doubt that the ability arises via conditioning).
Although the participants didn’t use emotions to produce their goose-bumps, triggering the sensation was associated with subsequent emotional experience, especially absorption and wonder (similar to involuntary goose-bumps). In fact, nearly three quarters of them said they deliberately triggered goose-bumps while engaged in aesthetic activities, such as listening to music or dancing, and also activities like sex and study, as if to accentuate or facilitate these experiences. Half of them also used their ability to prolong involuntary goose-bumps.
An obvious criticism of the study is that the participants’ accounts must be taken on trust – the researchers didn’t invite these individuals to the lab to study the phenomenon with their own eyes (or if they have, these results aren’t available yet). However, given the consistency of the accounts, Heathers and his colleagues doubt that the participants are fabricating, and they added: “It is unlikely any participant had prior cues or expectations regarding how their ability might be expected to work due its rarity”.
As part of the survey, the participants also completed a personality and emotion questionnaire and the most striking result was that they scored much higher than average on the trait of Openness, and they experienced the state of absorption more often than normal. The personality finding isn’t surprising given that prior research has found that more open individuals are more prone to involuntary goose-bumps; openness is also associated with self-experimentation, which may be one way that the goose-bumpers discovered or developed their skill.
Unfortunately, we still have no idea about the prevalence of the voluntary goose-bump ability because the researchers don’t know how many people viewed their online advertisements for the survey. We do know that they screened 682 first-year psychology students, and none of them had the ability.
It’s going to be exciting to see what more can be discovered about this little known phenomenon, especially how other physiological systems such as heart rate are involved, and how it affects emotional experience.
Lead author James Heathers, perhaps best known for his data sleuthing activities, said (on Twitter): “This is the strangest thing I’ve ever gotten to study, and I love it“. Can he do it? “No,” he said, adding: “Do you know how many hours I’ve spent staring at my damn arms or hands, trying to focus ‘energy’ at the back of my head?? I feel ridiculous and I absolutely cannot do it.” Check Heathers’ twitter feed @jamesheathers for more discussion and information.
—The voluntary control of piloerection [this study is a pre-print and has not yet been subjected to peer review]