Here’s Why People Scratch Their Heads When They’re Thinking

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You’ve probably never spent quite so much time thinking about how often you touch your face until recently, but the truth is, most people do it more than we ever realized.

We scrub our faces, we play with our hair, we pick at our lips, we rub our eyes, and yes, we scratch our heads all the time.

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Why is touching our faces and heads so common? Why do humans tend to scratch their heads while they’re thinking?

It turns out that there are some pretty interesting answers!

According to San Diego Reader columnist Matthew Alice, some people think it’s as simple as a behavior passed down from our caveman ancestors.

“One popular explanation for any hand-to-head movements is that they’re frustrated aggression – a reversion to the natural movements of our rock-throwing ancestors.

If you watch a small child strike at something, he’ll raise an arm over his head and bring it forward in an arc.

It’s a natural, unstudied movement. Not much finesse, but for a caveman, it got the job done.”

He also reiterated a possible anthropological explanation as well:

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“When we’re wrestling with some knotty problem, we experience feelings of frustration, perhaps some anger, and before we know it, our hand flies up in the air.

But hold it. In these modern times, it’s not polite to bash the guy who asked the question.

So instead we deflect attention from the movement and scratch or rub our head or chin or neck.”

In a 2009 article, former FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro put forth another observation.

“When we are under stress, our brain requires a certain amount of hand to body touching (hand wringing, forehead rubbing, temple massaging, lip touching, etc.).

These pacifiers serve to soothe the individual when there is negative limbic arousal [fear, stress, etc.].”

More recent research seems to bolster the stress theory, and even adds more layers to it.

They studied a bunch of rhesus monkeys and found that they scratched more often when they were stressed.

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So there you go – there are a bunch of reasons that scratching normal human behavior, so even if you think it’s weird, you’re not alone.

Which is pretty much the way things go with us humans.