On your brisk walk to work today, you probably passed people clutching themselves tightly, shoulders bunched to their chins, shivering. Well, even if you were bundled up to toasty perfection, seeing people visibly cold will actually make you feel colder, according to new research published in PLOS ONE.
The feeling isn't just in your head, either. It's so real, in fact, your body temperature will actually plummet. Researchers at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School refer to this phenomenon as "temperature contagion."
For the study, researchers took the temperature of the hands of 36 participants. Then, the participants each watched eight videos of actors dunking their hands into either visibly warm or cold water. At the same time, the temperature of the subjects' hands were measured again. They fond that their hands were significantly colder when watching the "cold" videos, while the "warm" videos did make a difference.
In other words, people were actually colder when they watched someone experience the cold.
These findings seem to relate to previous research on empathy. UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner found that if you feel physical pain, a part of your brain lights up, and if someone sees you experiencing that pain, the same part of his or her brain lights up. That is, we are wired to feel each other's pain.
"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," said lead author of the "cold' study, Dr. Neil Harrison, in a press release.
Because we are social creatures, he says, much of our success depends on our ability to live in communities — by predicting each other's thoughts, feelings and motivations, and empathizing with them.
Dr. Harrison also believes that the findings were influenced by the fact that the warm videos had less warm cues (a little steam from the water and the pink color of the actor's hand) than the cold videos had cold cues (clearly visible blocks of ice). Also, he adds, there is evidence that people are more sensitive to others appearing cold rather than hot.
It may seem unpleasant that we can experience feelings of discomfort just by looking at someone uncomfortable. But when you really think about it, it's actually a nice thought — that we literally feel the pain of others. Empathy is so ingrained in human nature that it has real, physiological effects on us.