You’re Itchier Than You Think

If you stop and look, do you notice how often people scratch themselves? Are we really all that itchy?

Yes we sure as hell are.

People (and most other primates) scratch themselves for a number of reasons, but that itch doesn’t always come from some invasion on our skin. Sometimes a little bit of stress makes us itchy. I tried to find a cool video that would help me illustrate this effect… but I failed miserably. On the bright side, I did manage to find this great TED-ed vid on every other kind of itch that I wasn’t trying to write about. (Lesson by Emma Bryce)

If you want to learn to read body language, watch when people are asked an uncomfortable question, lose a game, or are about to enter a dispute. When we’re stressed, our body language speaks much louder than our words. When something makes us anxious, we’re aware how reckless our words can be, so we hesitate to say exactly what we’re thinking in the way we’re thinking it so that we don’t offend (Well, most of us do. Those who don’t gain the title “outspoken.”). When put in a situation that agitates us, we tend to pace, shake our legs, and/or scratch ourselves instead of immediately screaming and flipping old ladies. While there’s no specific scientific reason for why we do this, researchers have looked to monkeys for a potential answer.

Jamie Whitehouse and other researchers from University of Plymouth published an article on an eight-month study of Macaques in Puerto Rico. A snippet of their introduction is as follows:

“One key behavioural correlate of stress, common particularly within the primates, is scratching (i.e the repetitive raking of the skin on face and/or body, with the fingers of the hand or feet). For example, scratching is often increased in victims of intense conflict, or in mothers who are separated from their newborn offspring. In addition, as the difficultly of cognitive tasks presented to chimpanzees increases, so does the rates of self-directed behaviours including scratching Rates of scratching can be both increased and decreased experimentally in macaques through the administration of anxiogenic and anxiolytic drugs respectively. On the whole, therefore, the evidence suggests a link between the experience of stress, the physiology of stress, and scratching.
Scratching is usually interpreted as a by-product of physiological responses, sometimes with proximate value attributed to internal regulatory processes. For example, it has been argued that scratching may distract individuals from the stressful stimulus and/or reduce the negative arousal associated with stressful events. However, given the overt visual nature of scratching, there is also potential for these behaviours to alert others to the state of the scratcher, and therefore have communicative function within a social environment.”

Just like with humans, the monkeys would scratch more often when placed in challenging situations, and less often when relaxed. They also seemed to scratch in social displays that scientists perceived warned others about a particular monkey’s volatility. A stressed out monkey is more dangerous to itself and the others than a calm one, and scratching would be a clear sign not to provoke it further.

It’s hard to truly hide how one feels when there are so many subconscious we do that give our true feelings away. The nerves that make us itch are the same nerves that control our pain receptors. The itching you’re feeling isn’t a made-up feeling in your head, but another of the body’s subtle reactions to the mind. Not only is it possible that our reflexive scratching helps keeps us calm in stressful situations, but it’s also a potential sign to others that something is beginning to … get under your skin.

(I was so conscious about how much I was scratching myself while in the process writing this that I feel like I need to shower… Thanks, brain.)

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