Some People Can Control When They Get Goosebumps—and Scientists Are Stumped

This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
MyetEck/iStock via Getty Images

Travis Carrasco, 29, is a mechanical engineer in Las Vegas, Nevada. For all intents and purposes, he’s a normal individual. He loves coloring with colored pencils; likes leadership books and the color green.

But in youth, his relatives took notice of Carrasco’s peculiar tendency to sway his head back and forth. He told them he was giving himself goosebumps. They didn’t believe him.

They were wrong.

According to the low end of informal estimates, about one in every 1500 people have something called Voluntarily Generated Piloerection (VGP)—the ability to consciously give themselves goosebumps. The weird thing is, VGP shouldn’t exist. The phenomenon both perplexes and intrigues neurophysiologists by defying conventional understanding of how the unconscious nervous system operates.

A mammal’s hair follicle clings to the skin via a tiny muscle. When this muscle contracts, the hair will stand, the skin around it will undergo bump-shaped distortion, and voilagoosebumps.

For the 1499 people in this statistical metaphor, goosebumps are completely involuntary. The tiny muscle, called the arrector pili, is made of smooth muscle fibers. And like other smooth muscles of the body—those that handle digestion, blood flow, respiration, and so on—they are unconsciously regulated. The nerves attached to them lie in the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system dedicated to managing bodily functions you aren’t supposed to control consciously, like heart rate or pupil dilation.

Voluntary Generated Piloerection "Shouldn't Be Possible"

When James Heathers, a physiologist at Northeastern University, came across an engineering paper referencing the only three single-individual case studies of VGP in medical history, he couldn’t believe it. 

“That was catnip for me,” Heathers tells Mental Floss, his voice cracking with excitement. “[VGP] shouldn’t be possible. That’s not how the autonomic nervous system works; what it does. This reason that it’s called autonomic—autonomos—it means ‘without thought.’”

Heathers, who normally spends his time in data science and patient-centered electronic health development, got to work on goosebumps as a scientific side-hustle. In 2018, he authored a paper in the journal PeerJ making the first published attempt at defining the prevalence and properties of VGP.

He wanted to know exactly how it works. What do people think about when they give themselves goosebumps? In what situations are they deployed? What personality traits are common in people with VGP?

Heathers sifted through obscure internet forums and sent out surveys, and ended up evaluating 32 participants with VGP using standardized personality tests. He found that those with VGP who responded to his survey had unusually ‘open’ personalities compared to the average person.

“They seem to be more creative; they imagine more,” Heathers says. “They pay more attention to themselves. They track their emotions more closely. They have a preference for new stuff … That’s either an artifact of people who are more open being more likely to answer a survey on the internet for fun, because they want to know about themselves; or it’s a component of the experience itself.”

A "Sixth Sense"

You may be thinking, Wait, I’m open-minded, and I can give myself goosebumps just by thinking of nails scratching a chalkboard. But Heathers is clear; that’s not VGP. 

“VGP has no mental or cognitive component,” Heathers says. “The vast majority of people who do it, in the way that we’ve defined it, simply have a really straightforward pathway. A lot of the time, they focus on a point, behind their ear or on their neck or at the back of the head. They don’t have to think of anything.”

In other words, those with VGP need only think about getting goosebumps—not about the situations that would, under normal circumstances, give them goosebumps.

“Basically, it starts at the base of my neck, the bottom of my head and the backside,” Carrasco, the engineer with VGP, tells Mental Floss. “When I trigger it, it feels like a bunch of sparks travel throughout my entire body, and I can do it repetitively, over and over and over and over and over. However, the strongest sensation is only the first couple times.”

While the induced goosebumps are stronger than those generated unconsciously, Carrasco says he can maximize the strength and resolution of his goosebumps by swaying his head from side to side.

“It’s a weird rhythm, but if I sway my neck, it triggers a really strong response,” Carrasco says. “You know when you squeeze your eyes really tight, and sometimes you hear pressure building, and it’s really just squeezing a muscle in your ears or your eyes. It’s similar to that, but when [the goosebumps] happen, sometimes I can hear that same pressure … it feels relaxing. It feels good.”

Carrasco likes to think it’s a sixth sense. He’s never met anyone else with VGP. But he notices that his son of 19 months sways his head a lot, too. And Carrasco can’t help but wonder, “Does he have the same ability I have?”

Maybe it’s genetic; scientists don't know. Whatever the cause, 30 to 40 times a week, you’ll catch Carrasco exercising his hidden superpower—a thought that just might give you goosebumps.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.