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 involuntary 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.”