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Temperature Contagion: Feeling Cold Is Contagious

Researchers from the University of Sussex, UK, suggest that the mere sight of someone shivering will make one feel cold as well. Volunteers were made to watch videos of people placing their hands in cold water. Their body temperature while doing so was monitored. The results were astonishing: the volunteers had their body temperature drastically reduced. From what is apparent, humans are sensitive to what is known as “temperature contagion”.

“If you feel cold, I feel cold”

They say yawning is contagious. They also say that laughing is sometimes contagious. Now, a new study, available on PLOS ONE, purports that ‘feeling cold’ might be transmitted to others in such an unusual way – looking at someone shivering will probably make you feel cold as well.

The experiment in detail: Cold vs Hot

A group of 36 participants were made to watch 8 videos of people putting their hands in either visibly warm or cold water. Simultaneously, their body temperature was being measured.
Their hands were found to be significantly colder as they viewed the videos depicting people in conditions with cold temperatures. The ‘warm’ videos, however, did not trigger such a response: no change was recorded.

Attempting to explain the contrast between the two sets of data, the lead author, Dr Neil Harrison,  who is a neuropsychiatrist, said that the ‘warm’ videos were “less potent” because the only indications of the water being hot was the steam emanating and the pink colour of the hands of those featuring in the videos. However, in the cold videos, blocks of ice were relatively more conspicuous during the whole duration of the recording. Otherwise, the authors also spoke of evidence that seems to indicate that people might be more sensitive to others looking like they are feeling cold than hot.

‘Cold empathy’?

Dr Harrison evaluated the results, explaining that these unconscious physiological changes may be helping us as a community: feeling what others feel brings people together, leading them to sympathise with each other. Yet another reason showing that empathy is the way to go, right?

He said: “Mimicking another person is believed to help us create an internal model of their physiological state which we can use to better understand their motivations and how they are feeling.”

Humans are profoundly social creatures and much of humans’ success results from our ability to work together in complex communities – this would be hard to do if we were not able to rapidly empathize with each other and predict one another’s thoughts, feelings and motivations,” he continued.


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