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Shivers Could Be Contagious

Looking at a chilly person could make you cold, too

(Michael Prince/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

No matter how toasty and warm you are feeling, there is a quick way to get the chills: look at another, chillier person. According to new research, looking at someone else who’s cold can make you feel cold, too.

A recent study reveals what Melissa Dahl of New York Magazine calls a “vicious, contagious, frozen circle” of cold. A team of scientists from the University of Sussex wanted to study a phenomenon known as “inter-subjectivity"—what happens when one person’s physiology or psychology syncs up with another’s. So the researchers gathered 36 subjects and showed them a series of videos of people submerging their hands in ice water, submerging their hands in water recently poured from a steaming kettle or keeping their hands at rest in a bowl of water.

While these videos were playing, the researchers measured the temperature of their subjects' hands. The effect of some of the videos was literally chilling: the research team found that subjects who watched the video of the hand in ice water had colder hands themselves. Watching the neutral video prompted no change. Neither did the video of the hand submerged in apparently hot water.

Why did people sync up their responses to their cold counterparts? Neil Harrison, a neuropsychiatrist who led the study, has a theory: matching someone else’s physical response can help us live together more harmoniously. “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’re feeling,” he said in a release.

So next time you feel a shiver, look around for someone nearby to blame. But don’t despair—science points to an efficient new way to warm up. A research team from Stanford University has announced a new kind of fabric that could even eliminate the need for indoor heating altogether. Using nanotechnology, scientists created fabric coated in tiny silver wires that holds in heat while allowing moisture to escape. The fabric can even be heated to over 100 degrees with less than a volt of power.

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