Why do we catch the urge to scratch?

First published in News by

It is something that has made scientists scratch their heads for years and now the University of Sussex has the answer.

Scientists from the university have joined with colleagues at the University of Hull to look at why itching is contagious.

The team discovered the part of the brain responsible for the itching and why some people are more prone to it than others.

Psychology lecturer Dr Henning Holle and researchers from the University of Sussex and Brighton and Sussex Medical School wanted to determine why some people are particularly vulnerable to itchiness when they see others scratching.

Volunteers filled in personality questionnaires and then underwent scans while being shown short videos of people either tapping or scratching their arms and chest.

Brain reaction

The results showed while contagious itch is experienced by most – around two-thirds of those involved in the study actually scratched themselves while watching the video – the people who experience more negative emotions are more susceptible than others.

The researchers matched the volunteers’ tendency to scratch with activity in several brain regions previously identified as part of the “itch matrix”.

The activity noted in three specific regions of the brain could be linked to subjective ratings of itchiness.

It is hoped this new information could be used to help people suffering from chronic itching sensations where there is no underlying cause.

Dr Holle said: “Almost everyone has felt that urge to scratch when watching someone else, but no one has ever really known why.

“It had previously been thought that empathy was responsible. But we found that neuroticism – a measure of the tendency to experience negative emotions – was positively linked to contagious itch.

“Highly neurotic people are known to be highly emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress. We found that participants with higher neuroticism scores are also the ones that are more easily ‘infected’.”

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Comments (5)

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9:23am Sat 17 Nov 12

John Steed says...

No doubt the next step will be to reserch why so many drivers pick their noses whilst driving.
No doubt the next step will be to reserch why so many drivers pick their noses whilst driving. John Steed
  • Score: 0

9:35am Sat 17 Nov 12

Morpheus says...

Wow, how useful.
Wow, how useful. Morpheus
  • Score: 0

10:25am Sat 17 Nov 12

Maxwell's Ghost says...

Perhaps there is an important aspect to this research but as it appears here, it adds to the growing negative perception about UK universities that they have gone to the dogs.
Is there an apprenticeship in scratching research?
Perhaps there is an important aspect to this research but as it appears here, it adds to the growing negative perception about UK universities that they have gone to the dogs. Is there an apprenticeship in scratching research? Maxwell's Ghost
  • Score: 0

11:45am Sat 17 Nov 12

Orlando Faark says...

(drum roll)...and the cure for cancer is...

Sorry, easy target.

So, neurotic people behave in a more neurotic way when doing things...mmm, could be on to something here Watson.

Sorry, that probably wasn't fair either.

This research might be useful if it supported any doctor being able to inform (without being sued) annoying, perfectly healthy time-wasters with histrionic tendencies that some of their problems might be psychological. Sadly, the cure for cancer seems more likely.

To answer John Steed: Results of a 9 year study have shown that driver/nose-picking could be matched across all social classes, irrespective of age, religion, or sex. Participants demonstrated a positive association between 'flavour' and 'perceived privacy'. Results were confounded by 'white-van-man' who, on occasion, was unable to locate a nostril with a finger...which was often instead being used to communicate anger at other road users that had just been cut up.
(drum roll)...and the cure for cancer is... Sorry, easy target. So, neurotic people behave in a more neurotic way when doing things...mmm, could be on to something here Watson. Sorry, that probably wasn't fair either. This research might be useful if it supported any doctor being able to inform (without being sued) annoying, perfectly healthy time-wasters with histrionic tendencies that some of their problems might be psychological. Sadly, the cure for cancer seems more likely. To answer John Steed: Results of a 9 year study have shown that driver/nose-picking could be matched across all social classes, irrespective of age, religion, or sex. Participants demonstrated a positive association between 'flavour' and 'perceived privacy'. Results were confounded by 'white-van-man' who, on occasion, was unable to locate a nostril with a finger...which was often instead being used to communicate anger at other road users that had just been cut up. Orlando Faark
  • Score: 0

1:33am Mon 19 Nov 12

tonybee says...

My dear departed Mum always said
"if you have an itch - scratch it and apply calamine lotion " !!!!!
My dear departed Mum always said "if you have an itch - scratch it and apply calamine lotion " !!!!! tonybee
  • Score: 0

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