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Piloerection is a reflexive response, not an emotional indicator

This research provides an in-depth exploration into the triggers and corresponding autonomic responses of piloerection, a phenomenon prevalent across various species. In non-human species, piloerection occurs in reaction to a variety of environmental changes, including social interactions and temperature shifts. However, its understanding in humans has been confined to emotional contexts. This is problematic because it reflects solely upon subjective experience rather than an objective response to the environment, and because, given our shared evolutionary paths, piloerection should function similarly in humans and other animals. We observed 1,198 piloerection episodes from eight participants while simultaneously recording multiple autonomic and body temperature indices, finding that piloerection in humans can indeed be elicited by thermal, tactile, and audio-visual stimuli. The data also revealed variations in cardiac reactivity measures: audio-visual piloerection was associated with greater sympathetic arousal, while tactile piloerection was linked to greater parasympathetic arousal. Despite prevailing notions of piloerection as a vestigial response in humans, it does respond to decreases in skin temperature and induces a rise in skin temperature during episodes. This research underscores that piloerection in humans is not solely an affective response to emotional stimuli. Rather, it is best understood as a reflexive response to environmental changes, suggesting a shared functional similarity with other species.

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