Itchy Empathy: Seeing Someone Scratch Makes Us Itch Too

Skin disorders might be cured more easily if we understand why people itch

A study led by researchers from John Moore University in Liverpool and the University of Manchester shows that the image of someone scratching an itch awakens in us the feeling that we need to scratch too.

The over 30 participants at the experiment were shown a series of images containing parts of skin with insects on it, skin forms or healthy skin along with other neutral pictures, Science Mag reports.

People were asked whether they felt itchy or not while watching each of the pictures while a group of supervisors were observing how often everyone scratched during the experiment.

Scientists concluded that seeing another person scratching caused a more intense itchiness than watching a potential itchiness causing object.

“The results suggest that, whereas the sensation of itch may be effectively transmitted by viewing others experiencing itch-related stimuli on the body, the desire to scratch is more effectively provoked by viewing others scratching,” explained Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist of Liverpool John Moore University and head-leader of the study.

Another study in the field, recently conducted by researchers from Hull University, was meant to investigate the neural fundamentals of the contagious itch, observing the brain parts in charge of an individual's response to another one's itching.

The authors believe that understanding the brain's activation during itching might offer a key to explain the phenomenon in case it is not physically produced.

“It was particularly interesting to see that contagious itch is not only elicited by observing someone scratching,” declared Dr. Henning Holle, the leader of the study.

“This suggests that a process of motor mimicking alone cannot explain contagious itch.”

Nonetheless, leaders of the more recent study declared that the explanation based on contagion reasons could help better understand and cure skin conditions.

“Our findings may help to improve the efficiency of treatment programmes for people suffering from chronic itch,” said Prof. McGlone.

“Itch has far more serious psychological consequences than people give it credit for. If you have chronic itch your life is blighted, but if you're unable to scratch that itch - or if you do scratch it - it gets worse and worse.”

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