Tracking the causes of goose bumps

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iol scitech aug 20 goose flesh AFP Security guard Norman Brown grabs hold of a fan running on the field in the ninth inning during a Major League Baseball game. A beautiful piece of music, a touching love scene on screen or a gripping sporting contest are all capable of causing the goose pimples.

Kiel, Germany - A beautiful piece of music, a touching love scene on screen or a gripping sporting contest are all capable of causing the goose pimples - or goose bumps or goose flesh - that everyone has experienced.

Christian Kaernbach, professor of psychology in the northern German city of Kiel, and his team have been attempting to find out what is behind the phenomenon, known as piloerection in the literature.

For this they have developed new methods for researching and measuring both goose pimples and their link to emotions.

Previous goose pimples tests depended on a subject pressing a button when they believed they were experiencing the phenomenon, according to Kaernbach. “I wanted to get away from that.”

While studying in Graz in Austria, he initiated a project to measure and assess goose pimples and their intensity in a more objective way, and he is now continuing this research in Kiel.

Kaernbach's working environment dose not have the feel of a classical laboratory. There is a comfortable rocking chair in the corner, with candles lending a cosy atmosphere under a lowered ceiling.

“We do our best to ensure that the subjects feel at home,” he says. The aim is for the subjects to let themselves go sufficiently to experience goose pimples.

But here the usual laboratory equipment takes over. Wires are attached to the subjects to measure skin conductivity, and the “Goosecam” - a camera taking pictures under side lighting - records their reactions in such a way that a 3D image is created.

Specially developed software assesses the intensity of the phenomenon and when it occurs.

The team has yet to find an answer to the question of why we get goose pimples when we hear a particular piece of music or talk about a strongly emotional experience. “We're not that far yet,” Kaernbach says.

While there are compelling theories, they do not answer all the questions. One, the Peak Arousal Thesis, has the hairs on the back of the neck and the arms rising during a state of high emotion. But this does not fit with all the basic emotions.

A second takes in certain frequencies and tonal sequences, like the cry of small animals that have lost their mothers. These sounds enhance the feeling of separation, of social exclusion, according to the theory.

This is paralleled by simply feeling cold, which can also lead to goose pimples.

Sound on its own cannot explain the phenomenon, Kaernbach says. “There is a lot going on in the mind.”

He is using the Goosecam to collect more data in the hope of arriving at a more satisfactory theory of why particular emotions should cause goose pimples, in the belief that it will lead on to further understanding of human emotion. - Sapa-dpa

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