From Nobel to Ignoble

by Daniel Garcia

We’re all familiar with the Nobel Prize, awarded to scientists, scholars, and thinkers who have made a major breakthrough or discovery. They are considered some of the most prestigious awards in the world and the pinnacle of scientific success.

On the other end of the science award spectrum are the amusing and lesser-known Ig Nobel Prizes, created to honor scientific achievements that “first make you laugh, and then make you think.” The prize is a satirical play on the word “ignoble,” an adjective meaning lowly, inferior, or humble.

While the Ig Nobel Prizes are less prestigious, they are arguably just as important; despite the ridiculous avenues of research taken by Ig Nobel Laureates, their research is often valuable with clearly important implications. The Ig Nobel prizes also serve to raise curiosity, and showcase to the general public the myriad of ways science can be done to solve problems, however mundane the problems might be.

The first Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded in 1991 to Alan Kligerman for “his pioneering work with anti-gas liquids that prevent bloating, gassiness, and embarrassment.” Dubbed as the “vanquisher of vapor” and “deviser of digestive deliverance,” Kligerman is credited with the invention of Beano. Since then, Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded for:

  • determining the coefficient of friction between a banana and the floor when the banana is stepped on
  • discovering that dogs prefer to align their body with the earth’s magnetic axis when they urinate and defecate
  • investigating the scientific validity of the five-second rule
  • showing that fish use farts to communicate

You can see how absurd some of these lines of research are, and you might think to yourself, “Why would anyone research this??” or even deeper, “How does anyone research this??”

To try and answer these questions, I’ll break down some of the latest research to be awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine this year, journal club style. Read on to learn about some “improbable research”!

Starting from scratch

The 2016 Ig Noble Prize in Medicine went to a group in Germany for discovering that “central mechanisms of scratching-induced itch attenuation can be activated by scratching the limb contralateral to the itching limb when the participant is made to visually perceive the non-itching limb as the itching limb by means of mirror images.”

This translates to: you can use a mirror illusion to relieve an itchy spot on your right arm by scratching your left arm (and vice versa)!

When you have an itch on your skin, you normally relieve it by scratching, of course. But for patients with certain skin diseases like rashes or eczema, scratching is not recommended by doctors as it might worsen the condition. The persistent itching sensation can become quite uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable, so the researchers set out to find a solution to this problem by trying to find a way to relieve itches without scratching the affected area.

Scratch That

The idea to use a mirror illusion came from previous studies in amputees showing that phantom pains in an amputated limb can be relieved by “fooling” the brain, using mirrors, into thinking that their amputated limb was still there.

With this knowledge, the researchers set up an itch-scratch experiment. They induced itching in the right forearm (using histamine injection in the skin), then relieved the itch by scratching in the following conditions (A-D):

Condition Itch Arm Scratch Arm Mirror (reflecting left arm)
A Right Right No
B Right Left No
C Right Right Yes
D Right Left Yes

It’s important to note that the scratching was not done by the study participants, but by researchers expertly trained in the art of scratching with minimal variability in force, duration, and directionality. The researchers went to great lengths to standardize the itching and scratching procedures, which is something I took for granted until I read through the details (for more details on these methods, check out the paper here).

The mirror was placed vertically on a table between the two forearms of the study participants (see image below). The participants were then instructed to look into the mirror to observe the reflection of their left (non-itchy) forearm. The itch-scratch conditions were then carried out as described in the table above.

Figure 1: Arrow points to the mirror.

So, how did researchers measure if the itching sensation was relieved? Study participants were asked to rate the intensity of the itch (on a scale from 0 to 100) once after the injection of histamine, and once after the scratch procedure. As their main metric, they calculated the difference in itch intensity before and after scratching; the resulting number was the amount of itch relief.

No smoke, just mirrors

Some of the results were as expected: when an itch was scratched directly, participants experienced itch relief (conditions A and C). The interesting result emerges when you compare conditions B and D, where scratching is performed on the the non-itchy arm with or without a mirror. Of course, very little – if any – itch relief was reported when the non-itchy arm was scratched without the mirror (condition B). Surprisingly, participants actually felt itch relief when viewing the reflection of their non-itchy arm getting scratched (condition D)!

That’s a headscratcher

Through this study we see that itch relief can be achieved by tricking your brain to believe that you are directly scratching the itch, when in fact you are not. Potentially, “mirror scratching” can be used in the clinic for patients with skin diseases whose itching symptoms can’t be relieved through use of medications or scratching the affected area.

The physiological, neurological, and psychological mechanisms governing this phenomenon are still unknown, but this research raises questions about what an itch actually is and how it is perceived by the brain. I suspect this is why this research won the Ig Nobel in Medicine this year; while the main finding of the study might seem silly or absurd, the work paves the way for answering some interesting questions in the field of neuroscience and beyond.

If you found this interesting, check out the other Ig Noble prizes from previous years and maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about how your polyester pants are ruining your sex life.


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