This week I went to Cape Cod and opted for a grueling yet discounted returning bus ride home to Brooklyn. In the seat directly in back of me, there was a lanky man with bushy eyebrows and a cutting stare. During the four-hour freeway stretch, he did all of the following: took off his sneakers, sang along with his music player, did yoga in the aisle, and ate a raw pepper while standing up. As he was munching on his curious snack, I glanced up only to find him hovering over me and meeting my stare. I got this sudden terribly cold feeling and a shiver down my spine. The willies? The chills? Call it what you will, but this dude was a certified creep.
Safe at home and armored with my laptop, I was itching to know why I felt so icy back there. If a “creep” is a widely understood descriptor, what social cues set off the physiological responses we feel after a close-creep-encounter? And if it’s not below freezing, why the chills?
The chills, the bumps, and the hair-raising hysterics are an evolutionary relic from our harrier days. It was first a biological reaction to being cold. By raising your hair, you trap an insulating layer of heat closer to the skin. Somewhere along the way, a cold ancestor realized that their poofy body scared away a predator because it made them appear much larger. Raised hair also extends the skin’s tactile range, giving us just a little more awareness of new stimuli surrounding us. Henceforth, hair-raising became a survival response to both fear and attack. It follows that fear or uneasiness often translate to feelings of being cold. They trigger the same ‘fro-friendly defense mechanism.
Technically speaking, the feeling of goosebumps, or having your hairs stand up, is called a piloerection. What happens during a skin boner? A muscle at the base of each hair follicle contracts, causing a small depression on the skin, meaning the surrounding area juts out. Now that we’re naked primates, we just look like plucked poultry once this happens, thus the name “goosebumps”. They can be accompanied by a cold sensation that produces a shudder and is often seen as pleasurable. The body releases neurotransmitters when you get a chill, including catecholamines, adrenaline, and dopamine. Essentially, it is a quick, pleasurable, and thrilling jolt. Intense experiences of fear and pleasure in a controlled setting are quite common and people even seek them out. That’s why the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island is still up and running, even though we all know it is a rickety death trap.
So, how did my Norman Batesy bus companion elicit these chilly biological responses? The international phenomena we understand as being “creeped out” occurs when people do not mimic our behavior. A lack of imitation can cause a disconnect and make this outsider feel unwelcome from the inside out. Amongst comfortable company, we tend to have similar body language and speech patterns that establish bonds and social structure. You know that friend you thought was a total phony when he came back with a slightly British accent after his semester abroad? It turns out, it’s more than easy to slip into behavioral mimicry, and people only start to feel mistrustful of others in its absence or when it appears incongruously.
Studies show that when people don’t perform in their expected roles, everyone registers the person as skeevy. People in positions of power appear creepy when they too closely mimic those under them. Dolls, clowns, and advanced animation can be chill-inducing because they are just slightly off facsimiles of humans. When behavior does not meet a socially constructed expectation, the odd feeling can turn into a sickening feeling. We may feel literally cold towards the person because they trigger our fight or flight chill response. Along with the chills, adrenaline release sometimes manifests itself in crying, sweat, trembling, a pounding in the chest, and butterflies in the stomach. The willies are a peculiar reaction to our brains telling us something is amiss, and that we might very well be in danger.
So how come you’re getting chills even when you’re not in the presence of Jimmy Smits? Goosebumps also pop up when we’re surprised or taken over by a great emotion. Sad songs with sharp changes in volume can remind us of the separation cries of our young and produce the same chilly, anxious reaction that actual danger does. We now associate this subconscious response to music with a wow-factor. Rushes of dopamine come with these musical chills, placing value on the reward of listening to moving music, as normally dopamine is released only during activities necessary for survival like mating and eating. How come we feel moved by the same song or the same nail running down a chalkboard if chills are supposed to be a response to the unexpected? The willies and goosebumps come after you unwittingly release adrenaline. If adrenaline is flowing, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard “Rolling in the Deep,” you might still get the chills.
Thinking back to my downward-facing perv, while the social benefits of palling around with creeps are few, the physiological experience of chills is never unpleasant. In brain scans, it’s been shown that chills increase the blood flow in parts of the brain most closely associated with reactions to the delicious indulgences of food, drugs, and sex. Every time we shudder, we are being slightly tickled by the brain’s reward system. We get frissons from the memory of chills passed. When that same song we once danced to with our lost love comes on, we reach for a sweater and something stirs within us. So if you’re craving a waltz with the willies, put on a horror flick, find a silverfish in your cabinet, spin “All Things Must Pass” on your record player, or frequent the parking lot of a 7-11, and you’ll be sure to maintain a piloerection.
ExpliKate is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the hyper-inquisitive Kate Hakala, who seeks to answer questions ranging from “What is kombucha?” to what you read above. Follow her on Twitter here.