“It starts in the back of my neck,” Javier Palejko told me over Skype. “It’s like I have a muscle there and I just make it work.”
The “it” in this case was goose bumps, which Palejko, a 34-year-old tech worker in Argentina, says he can control at will. Like most unexceptional people—by which I mean, people whose goose bumps only appear when we’re cold or feeling intense emotions—I could not even begin to imagine how to control goose bumps. I inquired, could he do it, like, right now?
“Let’s try,” he said, angling the webcam toward his forearm. “Do you see it?” And sure enough, within two seconds, the hair follicles on his arm had become bumps, visible even on a grainy Skype video. “I thought everyone can do that,” Palejko said.
Everyone cannot do it. But Palejko is not alone, either. He is among dozens of people that James Heathers, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University, identified during and after a recent study on the phenomenon. Heathers posted a preprint—which has not yet been peer reviewed—describing 32 people who can control their goose bumps, and he’s been contacted by several others since. Many of them, like Palejko, had thought this ability was perfectly ordinary for most of their lives. Palejko told me his brother can do it, too.
But this is not how the human nervous system usually works. Scientists think goose bumps are a reflex left over from our hairy ancestors, whose fur would fluff up for warmth or for scaring off enemies. On relatively hairless humans, goose bumps appear when tiny muscles pull on the hair follicle. Those muscles are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which also manages other involuntarily actions like heartbeats, pupil dilation, and wave-like contractions in the digestive system called peristalsis. Inducing goose bumps at will, says Heathers, is “like saying you can suddenly change peristalsis action or stop your heart.”
Heathers—who, like most people, can’t control goose bumps—first became intrigued by the phenomenon by reading old case studies. “I have a particular fondness for old journals and forgotten, abandoned articles,” he says. It was in one of these old dives into old journals that he came across a 1938 case study in which scientists observed a middle-aged man controlling goose bumps. He kept digging. Another case study popped up, this time about a 27-year-old student from 1902. “He can produce the condition of ‘goose-flesh’ at will in from two to 10 seconds from the instant of volition,” wrote the physiologist who examined him, “and can cause it to disappear in a like time.” In a more recent article from 2010, Austrian and German scientists actually filmed a 35-year-old man who could control his goose bumps.
If this was real, Heathers wondered, could there be more people out there?
He began to search on Google—following the maxim that if something is real, then it must be documented online. Indeed, he came across forums discussing the phenomenon and videos deep in the long tail of YouTube. He devised a survey to advertise on forums and psychology Facebook groups, and his team eventually heard from 32 people who claimed to have voluntary control of their goose bump. The survey was long and complicated, Heathers says, so he didn’t think people would take it just to mess with him.
The survey revealed that not all goose-bump powers are created equal. Some people said they needed to actually induce an emotional reaction. One participant, Heathers noted, said he actually needed to think about his girlfriend getting murdered to give himself goose bumps.
For others, getting goose bumps requires concentration but no particular emotional reaction. “I always have to close my eyes. I try to do it without closing my eyes and I can’t,” said Eliza Bacon, a biologist in Southern California who contacted Heathers after reading a short article about his research. She experiences it as a tingling sensation that begins at the back of her head and spreads through her scalp and body.
For people like Palejko, inducing goose bumps is no more difficult than moving an arm. He did note one difference, though: It takes time for his goose bumps to recharge. “I can do it again,” he said after showing me his goose bumps over Skype, “but it’s just like losing power and I have to wait around 10 minutes.”
Brenna Mickal, a college student in Louisiana, told me something similar. “If I do it twice in a row, I have to concentrate more the second time,” she said. And if she tries and fails, it actually feels uncomfortable—like having to sneeze but being unable to.
None of the people I spoke to associated controlling goose bumps with especially negative feelings. It was even positive in some cases. Mickal says she feels a warmth spread through her body and uses it to warm herself up when cold. Bacon says she uses it to alleviate headaches.
“It’s a fascinating story,” says Timo Siepmann, a clinical neurologist at Dresden International University who has studied inducing goose bumps in people with a small electric shock. It reminded him of epileptic patients, who have abnormal brain activity in the cerebral cortex that sometimes results in involuntary goose bumps. Perhaps people who can control their goose bumps are able to activate certain regions of the cerebral cortex. But, he cautioned, “at this stage, I have no idea.”
Christian Kaernbach, a psychologist at the University of Kiel and an author of the 2010 case study, told me his lab had actually advertised in local papers afterward and found about 10 more people who could control their goose bumps in a lab. He never wrote up those results because the Ph.D. student leading the study left to pursue a career in comedy instead. And as a psychologist, Kaernbach was more interested in studying emotional triggers of involuntary goose bumps, anyway.
Heathers has not yet studied any his subjects in a lab yet. “I have never seen it with my own two eyes,” he admitted. But his approach—advertising on Facebook groups and then publishing the preprint online rather than waiting to publish in a paywalled journal—has created the beginnings of an online community around voluntary goose bump control.
A few years ago, ASMR videos featuring people whispering and rustling pieces of paper shot up YouTube’s most popular list. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response”—a term coined not by scientists but by an ASMR Facebook group—and it describes the pleasurable tingling sensation some people feel watching these videos. Psychologists, playing catch up to YouTube, have since begun to study ASMR.
Bacon told me that as a kid watching “Sailor Moon,” she had thought of the tingling sensation she felt with goose bumps to be like exerting energy on the outside world. “It’s like those were my powers,” she said. I asked if she boasted about it to other kids. “I don’t think I said anything,” she replied. “I was at least intelligent enough to know that was weird, and other people would think that was weird.” She paused to consider how we were talking about it now. “God bless the internet.”