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Why watching someone itch makes you scratch

Some people are more prone than others to 'contagious' itching

Have you ever experienced the feelings of itchiness while watching someone else scratch?

Scientists University of Sussex and the University of Hull have found the part of the brain responsible for ‘contagious’ itching – and discovered why some people are more prone to it than others.

Psychology lecturer Dr Henning Holle and fellow 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.

Healthy volunteers filled in personality questionnaires and then underwent Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans while being shown short videos of people either tapping or scratching parts of their arms and chest.

The results, published today (12 November 2012) in the journal PNAS, showed that, 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 also correlated the volunteers' tendency to scratch with activity in several brain regions previously identified as part of the 'itch matrix.' Additionally, it is reported that the activity noted in three specific regions of the brain could be linked to subjective ratings of itchiness.

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

Dr Henning Holle (now at the University of Hull) led the research at the University of Sussex and worked with Professor Jamie Ward (Psychology and Sackler Centre), Professor Anil Seth (Informatics), Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science) and Professor of Hugo Critchley, who is also co-director of the Sackler Centre and Professor of Psychiatry at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS).

Dr Holle says: “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’ by contagious itch.

“Our observed link between activity in prefrontal cortex and neuroticism might reflect that the emotionally more stable participants, with low neuroticism scores, are less susceptible to contagious itch, because they are better at suppressing the irrelevant itch sensation arising from observing someone scratch themselves.”

Notes for Editors

The Neural Basis of Contagious Itch and Why Some People are more Prone to it’ is available online at

For further information contact Claire Hughes, University of Hull Press office, on 01482 465268 or 07703 888622 or email

For interviews with Professor Jamie Ward, Professor Anil Seth or with Professor Critchley, please contact Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing at the University of Sussex Press office on 01273 678 888 or  email:

The Sackler Centre is the result of a substantial grant by the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, which funds pioneering research into the brain. The Sackler Foundations support the advancement of education of the public in the UK and elsewhere in the fields of art, science and  medical research.

Researchers from neuroscience, work together in the Centre to study the conscious state using a unique combination of theory,  clinical investigations and hard science.

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Last updated: Monday, 12 November 2012