Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXIII: It’s a Bird – $400

Jeopardy! category: IT’S A BIRD (14-07-2014)

$400 clue: AKA the pilomotor reflex, it’s skin’s response to cold or emotional stress

Correct response

The gist: Sadly, R.L. Stine didn’t think Pilomotor Reflex had the same ring to it. 

Goosebumps (or goose pimples across the pond, and probably elsewhere) are a reaction present in many mammal species which causes small muscles around body follicles to contract, causing the hair (or fur, or quills) to stand on end. While it’s a bit unclear why humans, a conspicuously unhairy species, possess this reflex, by analogy with other species that exhibit it it seems clear that it is a general reaction to stressful stimuli – though not always the bad kind of stress. Well-known examples of the pilomotor reflex are the classic Halloween cat with its back raised and fur standing straight, and porcupines raising their quills in response to perceived threats. In humans, as the clue says, the reflex is most commonly associated with fear and cold, although it can also manifest itself in response to pleasure, arousal, and other positive emotions.

Which is partly why the reaction is so mysterious. The cold reflex’ explanation is somewhat straightforward – back when we used to have more hair, having it stand on end increased the air that our hair (back then, fur) trapped closed to our bodies, giving us an extra layer of insulation to keep our body heat in and the cold air out. The usual explanation for the fear reflex is that the appearance of extra size may cause threats to just decide we’re more than trouble than we’re worth to try to fight – as the same reaction has been seen in other mammals in simulated or laboratory threat situations, this makes sense as well. What makes less sense is the reflex in response to pleasural stimuli – surely we don’t need extra heat or size when we see a favourite artwork, or have our heads scratched. A possible explanation is that the more primitive parts of our brain that we share with other mammals isn’t capable of distinguishing between good and bad intense emotion – all it feels is something important happening, and it kicks into action.

As for the avian part of it, the term “goose bumps” is an allusion to the bumps found on the skin of a plucked goose – various explanations have been offered as to why geese get the honour as opposed to other birds, but sure enough, many other birds are given the honour in other languages, so to think geese are special is being pretty Anglo-centric. Shame on you.

Wikipedia’s pretty good picture of the pilomotor reflex on human skin

The clue: Since we already know the correct response has something to do with a bird, the writers don’t really need to give any info for this one other than a simple explanation of the term. It’s certainly a common enough phenomenon that most anyone should be able to recognize it from the definition. Not much that’s very interesting going on with this clue (although that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one – just not a great one).

In Jeopardy!: “Goose bumps” returns 19 clues in the J!Archive, 12 of which are about R.L. Stine’s series (often introduced as a “children’s horror series” or some such thing.) The seven others are all about the reflex. Four give some scientific name for it or another. This is the only one that uses “pilomotor reflex,” though; the others are “piloerection” and “horripilation,” while another mentions the “arrector pili” muscle that causes the contractions, which I’m counting as a scientific name even if it’s not for the reflex perse. Three, including this one, mention birds of some sort, and cold and fear are both common as well. All in all, you should know more about the books than you should about the reflex, and if you just remember that “pilo” is a medical term for hair, you’ll just fine for when the reflex comes up.

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