I was reading an interview with this scientist, James Heathers, who has set up a Twitter account that adds “IN MICE” to the tweets that come out whenever somebody is hyping a study about a medical breakthrough based on extrapolation from experiments on laboratory mice. It’s a good project; it would be also be good if someone made one that added “BY GINA KOLATA” to warn readers away from dramatic-breakthrough studies by the New York Times’ Overexcitablity Desk.
At the end of the interview, the scientist talked about something else he’s really interested in: he studies the obscure and inexplicable phenomenon of people who have the ability to give themselves goosebumps.
Huh? I was sitting on the couch as I read this, wearing a t-shirt, with a little bit of a cool draft seeping in through the window behind me. I immediately did the thing I’ve been able to do all my life, which was to sort of load up the feeling of that chill on the back of my neck, and then send it down my arms, raising goosebumps. As one does, because who can’t do that? You just focus on the goosebump feeling, right under the top of your skin, and there it goes.
Apparently a person is not supposed to be able to do this. The goosebump muscles are not under voluntary control, officially. A writeup of Heathers’ research explained why this extremely normal thing that is part of my usual experience of having a human body is actually bizarre and mysterious:
From a physiological perspective, controlling goosebumps on command should be impossible. The tiny muscles that pull up your skin to form bumps don’t have a conscious connection to the brain. There aren’t nerves that provide a motor impulse to control them.
“Without the involvement of a higher-level brain process ordering them to do something, it should technically be impossible,” Heathers said.
This was confounding in equal and opposite measure to the time I realized, after years of confusion, that I’m physiologically unable to smell freesia. My wife would always say what a delicious candy smell the flowers had, and I would always just be puzzled, and she would be puzzled by my puzzlement, until finally I Googled away at it and discovered that there’s a known mutation that causes people to have a specific anosmia for the chemical beta-ionone, which—I’m told—is the chemical that gives freesia its overwhelming sweet smell, and also contributes to the characteristic aroma of violets, and is moreover added to various manufactured foods and drinks. I have to take everyone’s word for this.
I have an otherwise very sharp sense of smell, but this thing that is a part of everyone else’s sensory world does not exist in mine. Dogs go around, and they can’t really see color but maybe they can smell cancer, and they look you in the eye like we’re all on the same page. The flowers are marked up in ultraviolet for the bees and we have no idea. Elephants were calling out to each other down below 20 Hz all along, mutually audible for miles and miles and silent to the human ear. We don’t even know what goes on with other people. You really can’t do that, with the goosebumps?