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Neurologists win Ig Nobel prize for discovering that scratching the other side relieves itching

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i5193 (Published 23 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i5193
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. New York

Neurologists from the University of Lübeck, Germany, have won the 2016 Ig Nobel prize for Medicine for showing that if you deceive the brain you can relieve an itch on the right side of a limb by scratching the equivalent spot on the left side.1

Andreas Sprenger, one of the prize winning researchers, told The BMJ that participants were tricked with mirrors or videos to think that the real itch was being scratched when actually a spot on the opposite arm was. The relief worked only when the participant was deceived.

He said that his group was interested in how perception modified pain. Sprenger noted that the method might be useful when people scratch at a severe itch and damage their skin.

The German scientists were among 10 winners of Ig Nobel awards, which recognise work that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. The awards were given by science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research and its editor Marc Abrahams, along with several Harvard University student groups. The theme of the ceremony was “Time,” particularly concerning the addition of a leap second.

Four genuine Nobel laureates presented the awards at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Most winners came to the ceremony at their own expense. Each received a large clock with 61 seconds, a certificate signed and handed out by a “Nobelist,” and a cash prize of a one trillion dollar Zimbabwean note.

The Reproduction prize was awarded to the late Ahmed Shafik, of Cairo University, who found that rats were less sexually active while wearing polyester or polyester/cotton pants. There was no change in sexual activity in rats wearing cotton or wool pants. Polyester containing pants generated electrostatic potentials, while the other pants did not.

Shafik wrote, “These potentials seem to induce ‘electrostatic fields’ in the intrapenile structures, which could explain the decrease in the rats’ sexual activity . . . wearing polyester underpants caused oligospermia in dogs and some human volunteers, which was reversible when the pants were removed.”2

The Chemistry prize was awarded to Volkswagen, “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.” Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, said, “The winner could not or would not join us.” Volkswagen reached a $15bn (£11.5bn; €13.4bn) settlement in the United States and now faces German shareholders who are suing for $9.2bn, which they claim they lost when the company’s shares fell in the emissions scandal.3

The Psychology prize was awarded to researchers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and the US for a study of more than 1000 liars. Lying takes more cognitive effort than telling the truth, said Bruno Verschuere, of the University of Amsterdam. He said, “Our capacity to lie depends crucially on our prefrontal cortex, which matures through childhood but only fully matures in young adulthood. There is a plateau phase during about 25 to 45 years, but as we get older the prefrontal cortex starts to decline.”

On average, people lie about twice a day, and teenagers and young adults are the best liars. However, the study found that just over half the lies were told by prolific liars, who made up nearly 9% of the group studied.4

The Peace prize was given to researchers from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and Yale University in the US for reception and detection of “pseudo-profound bullshit,” which cognitive psychologist Gordon Pennycook of Yale described as sounding impressive but being meaningless or trite and with little concern for the truth. He told The BMJ that it was becoming more common because information and communication were increasing. “Bullshit is everywhere. Politics, advertising, media, are rife with bullshit,” he said.5

Joint winners of the biology prize injected a note of British eccentricity into the ceremony. Charles Foster, who lived in the wild as a badger, an otter, and other animals, won for his book Being a Beast, and Thomas Thwaites won for his book GoatMan.6 7 Thwaites accepted his award dressed as a goat.

The ceremony will be available on YouTube.

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