Donna Kim-Brand

Priming for autumn, in many regions October air takes on a definite chill, causing shivers in the more delicate of our species. (I am one of those). In addition, by the end of the month we host Halloween, which causes shivers of the scary sort. And as we discuss all things hair here in the HairChatter Blog, let’s tackle the question everyone really wants to know but doesn’t think to ask: “What makes your hair stand up when cold, scared or deeply emotionally moved?”

When I was a kid, I used to spend several weeks each summer with my grandparents on their dairy farm. I got the sensory-rich experiences of mucking out the cow barn, shoveling fermented feed grasses so acrid my nostrils burned, milking Bessie udder by udder into a pail from a 3-legged stool placed at her hind legs while holding her tail under my arm to prevent a whipping, and having to pluck the feathers from a chicken whose head I’d watched getting axed off on the tree stump.

Quite the intake for a girl from the suburbs! But what still gives me the heebie-jeebies is remembering the bumps that stuck out on the leathery chicken skin in each spot I’d had to pluck out the feathers. No wonder we call those funny bumps on human skin ‘goose bumps’- they look just the same as those chicken bumps.

Human design dynamics are utterly amazing. As a response to feeling cold, our hair stands-on-end and we shiver. This piloerection, as it’s called, is caused by contraction of the muscles surrounding hair follicles which forces the hair to stand upright. In turn, the rising of the hair creates an expansion of space filled by air underneath the skin. This provides an extra layer of insulation and warmth, rather like a vacuum.  Shivering is our body’s way to literally shake our way to generating more body heat, so we get a doubly whammy response!

Animals with more fur than humans have hair also gain additional warmth from their fur coats, which puff up when cold and also when frightened. Hmmm, so what’s the connection here between cold and fear?

As with many things human, physiology connected to psychology plays a key role in why our hair sticks up, and why we get ‘goose bumps’ and shiver when cold or afraid. It’s the same for animals. The puffing up made the animal look bigger, which served to scare off attackers. What a great defense mechanism! Notice how when afraid, we often get the proverbial ‘chills or shivers down our spine’? Hair-raising and the biological response is a reaction to both cold and fear.

There’s another element at play. When we perceive a threat, either physical or psychological, blood transfers from our brains to our pancreas and adrenaline kicks in. That’s why we have a hard time thinking straight in high stress situations. We immediately experience a rapid heartbeat- for getting the body ready to fight or flee, dilated pupils in our eyes- to allow in more light for greater safety, and hair standing up- revving up our metabolism to be ready for action.

But wait, there’s more! Haven’t you also had hair-raising experiences when deeply inspired or moved emotionally in ways that aren’t necessarily fearful: seeing the perfection of a newborn baby, in prayer or when touched by the divine, on hearing meaningful notes or words in a song or being moved to tears in a movie. This is really just an extension of the fear response on the emotional scale. What’s amazing is that these types of responses never get lost through habituation, though we can be trained to handle them more effectively as police officers, soldiers and nurses do.

In other words, getting chills and goose bumps reminds us we are alive, and keeps us primed for when we really need the hair-raising experience to serve our well-being to keep us warm, keep us safe, or keep us inspired on our life journey.

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