Have you ever sat in a public space and realized that you didn’t quite notice how cold it was until those around you began reaching for their sweaters? While it may be true that you were always cold and just didn’t acknowledge it until you saw others do so, a recent study from England suggests the physical sensation of feeling cold is actually contagious.

In a recent study, a team of British neurologists pondered whether simply looking at someone shivering could cause you to experience similar body temperature shifts. Although it’s been observed that activities such as laughter or yawning can be contagious, science had no clear answer as to whether "non-emotional" experiences could produce similar effects. To investigate, they recruited 36 participants to sit in a temperature-controlled room, Real Clear Science reported. The participants were asked to watch two-minute-long videos of actors placing one of their hands in either steaming water, ice water, or lukewarm water. As this was happening, the researchers monitored the participants’ heart rate and hand temperatures.

Results showed that watching a video of an individual experiencing cold caused a slight, yet undeniable temperature drop in the participants’ hands. The temperature of the right hand fell by an average of around 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit, while the temperature of the left hand fell an average of 0.4 degrees.

Although the cold videos produced changes in the viewers’ body temperatures, it had no effect on their heart rate. Researchers also noted that both the hot and lukewarm videos produced no changes in the viewers.

Emotional Contagions

It’s believed that this reaction to cold may be an emotional contagion. According to a 1993 paper published by the American Psychological Society, an emotional contagion is “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s, and consequently, to converge emotionally. Other activities believed to also be emotional contagions are loneliness, laughter, and even stress.

“People seem to be capable of mimicking other people’s facial, vocal, and postural expressions with stunning rapidity,” wrote the authors. “As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into those other emotional lives at a surprising extent.”

“Current theories suggest that we do this to better understand how another person is feeling — and help us empathize with them — if you like by creating an internal model of how the other person is feeling,” lead researcher Dr. Neil Harrison told Medical Daily in an email. 

The phenomena can be explained by “mirror neurons,” which, according to Harrison are known to fire when we perform an action or observe a similar action in others.

What does this mean? Well, for one, it may mean that you’re more observant and sensitive to the emotions of others than you may have originally believed. Harrison also believes that his study can help to provide insight into how humans understand other people’s emotions and motivations.

“Much of human communication occurs rapidly and without language — understanding how we are able to 'automatically' pick up on how other people are feeling, their motivations, etc., will help us better understand the complexity of human communication,” he said.

Harrison’s not alone in his belief that by gaining a better understanding of our ability to “catch” emotional contagions, we may be more equipped to understand and even advance in other area of interpersonal communication. “Such understanding may help increase understanding of group behaviors that have shaped history, whether they be Adolf Hitler fanning hatred to his listeners, Martin Luther King spreading a message of love, or the ways in which crowds behave,” concluded the researchers in the APS paper.

Source: Cooper EA, Garlick J, Featherstone E, Voon V, et al. You Turn Me Cold: Evidence for Temperature Contagion. PLOS One. 2014.