When you see another person scratching, you most likely feel that you’re itchy too. Don’t start thinking you’re weird because it is actually a normal response. That certain feeling falls under the “social contagion” definition. To understand better, a new study aimed at shedding light on this phenomenon in which it was discovered that the brain is actually hardwired to react to someone else scratching.
The itchy feeling you get when someone scratches their skin is much like yawning. Both are socially contagious behaviors. Many people recognize that when another person yawns, they feel as if they’re sleepy or tired too, so they copy the action. This is what happens when we see another person scratching. It’s not empathy, according to the study, but it is actually a hardwired behavior. There are even times when just mentioning itching can cause someone to feel the same.
According to the study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, the brain responds to visual cues, causing us to feel itchy when someone scratches. The study had 30 participants who were given images that didn’t involve other people itching and they did respond to the following:
- Ants on and off the skin
- Other insects on the skin
- Skin conditions
- Healthy skin
In another recent study published in the journal Science, some mice were shown a video of another mouse scratching itself. In just a few seconds, the mice watching started scratching as well. This is quite surprising for the scientists because mice don’t have good vision. Instead they use their sense of touch and smell to search and discover areas. The mice noticing the video amazed the scientists, especially since they could also tell the mouse in the video was itching.
The two mentioned studies both showed that when another person is scratching, it sends a specific signal to the brain to feel itchy – and it has nothing to do with the cause of the itch. It is simply the action. The findings may be useful for those who suffer from chronic itch, which may be due to psychological reasons.
When something is hardwired into the brain, we have no control toward it. This is why contagious itching is something we can’t stop as another person scratches. It is an instinct and at the same time, an innate behavior. Another thing is that potentially itchy stimulus, such as seeing ants on the ground can induce the feeling of itchiness.