In our “What’s Bugging You” articles, we often discuss pests such as bed bugs, fleas, mosquitoes and head lice. Just thinking about these pests can cause us to itch. Watching someone scratch themselves may cause us to feel itchy, too, but why? Scientists have no definitive reason for this psychosomatic phenomenon, but they have performed research on the topic and developed hypotheses.

There are several hypotheses as to why we itch when thinking about something itchy. One hypothesis suggested by scientists is that our skin is constantly itchy to some extent, but we suppress the feeling until something reminds us. Another suggests that our senses become heightened because of the idea something could be crawling on us, even though nothing is. The latter could have some merit. At least once in every Floridian’s life, we have had the cockroach bedtime home invader. We’re ready to go to sleep and we spy a roach in the bedroom. We swat at the roach and miss! The roach runs off and we can’t find it. As we lay in bed, our skin crawls as we anticipate Mr. Roach crawling on us in the night with his six spiny legs.

Scientists also have hypotheses on why we itch when we see other people scratching. One idea is based on empathy or “fitting in” socially. We want to be a part of the social group subconsciously, so we mimic their behavior. If someone yawns, we yawn.  If someone scratches, we get itchy and scratch. Yet another possible explanation involves pest prevention. Seeing someone scratch could possibly mean they have parasites on them, such as fleas or lice. If they have parasites, our mind tells us we could too, so we begin to feel itchy. By scratching, we could potentially be removing any parasites on us.

Although the occurrence of itchiness induced by suggestion seems like a novelty, there is value behind the research being done by scientists concerning it. The data gathered is being used to determine the cause and, hopefully, the cure for those with medical conditions causing untreatable and uncontrollable itching. So, the next time you read about head lice and feel that itching sensation, know you’re not alone. Scientists are scratching their heads, too, about the phenomenon.