You're battling a harsh winter in the city and have ducked into a coffee shop to defrost. As you sit by the window, you hear the gentle murmur of ‘For the Longest Time’ by Billy Joel — the image of your mother's slowly aging face appears in your mind as your remember the first night you heard her sing it at the top of her lungs at that dimly lit Italian restaurant. Your body then speaks to you with its response… goosebumps. The braille of our emotions.
Your lips touch the warm mug and the steam from your coffee embraces your face and lingers. This moment is interrupted by the loud clang of the bells on the door of your safe haven, the door swings open and a brisk, bitter wind hits your ankles. Immediately, your body is invaded by small raised bumps. How is the same response triggered by two seemingly disconnected events: memory and temperature?
The reason for this similar response in not-so-similar situations is the subconscious release of the stress-hormone adrenaline, which is produced in two small beanlike glands that sit atop the kidneys. After the adrenaline is produced, it then sends signals to the miniature muscles attached to each hair on the body and makes them contract. This contraction creates shallow depressions on the skin's surface that causes the surrounding areas to protrude; this process is called the pilomotor response. The most interesting part of the phenomenon is that it is subconscious, which make goosebumps considered a fight-or-flight response.
For animals with a thick coat of hair, the pilomotor response increases the layer of air between the hair and the skin, helping to conserve warmth. We can see this similarly in humans but why, then, are goosebumps provoked when we listen to music? It has been theorized that music is connected to the human brain’s chemical response to social loss. The cry of a lost child or relative might have triggered the pilomotor response in long-ago human ancestors, serving as a survival strategy by warning of danger and allowing tribal people to stay together. The ambiguity of this invasive response is what makes it so interesting and primal, connecting us with our ancestors physically and without warning. It’s incredible that our body can understand a connection that we can’t.
You could think of goosebumps as metaphors, connecting two unlike things such as a Italian restaurant’s Pandora playlist and the chill of a frigid Chicago wind. Afterall, metaphors do put abstract concepts into concrete terms.