Dear Matthew Alice, Why is it, when people can't answer a question, they reflexively scratch their heads, as if it helps them think? Can scratching your head really improve your ability to answer any simple question? — M.S., San Diego
The perfect M.A. question, of course, familiar as I am with head scratching, eyebrow furrowing, chin stroking, and other cerebrum helpers. But we don’t ordinarily need gestural aids to answer simple questions. It’s the tough ones that cause us to reflexively cast our eyes at the ceiling or grab our napes and start to pace until we come up with a brilliant answer. Or any answer at all.
Automatic gestures are a kind of expressive shorthand for our feelings. The most cogent explanation of head scratching and other hand-to-head or hand-to-neck moves is that they represent frustrated aggression — a reversion to the natural movements of our club-swinging, rockthrowing ancestors. When we’re wrestling with some knotty problem, we may experience feelings of frustration, perhaps some anger, and, before we know it, our hand flies up in the air. But hold it a minute. In these modern times, it’s not polite to bash the guy who asked the question. Or throw a rock at him. So to deflect attention from this aggressive move, we drop our hand to our neck and rub it or scratch our heads. At least that’s the way anthropologists see the situation — as a polite, disguised expression of an urge to hit something.
Psychologists have a slightly different explanation, though related in some ways. First we’ll have to understand that most absent-minded, self-touching movements are interpreted by professional people-analyzers as efforts to comfort ourselves in times of stress. If there’s no one around to give us a reassuring pat, we’ll pat ourselves, is the reasoning. Head touching, then, would be a way of relieving the stress of feeling stupid and frustrated or however we feel when we can’t think of an answer. The movement is directed at the head because the source of our distress is our lame brain.
Neuropsychologists would say head-scratchers are people who deal with the world most comfortably through their sense of touch or through movement. Each of us, they believe, has a dominant orientation — our sense of sight, hearing, or touch — and we tend to learn and to solve problems through our favorite sense. When perplexed, a visual person might be more inclined to cast his eyes toward the ceiling and try to “see” the elusive answer. An aural person might tug at an ear and try to “hear” it. So head scratching, to some professionals, is seen as a method for touch- or movement-oriented people to stimulate some brain power.
Oh, yes. Does head scratching work? Gee, I...um, let me think about that one. I’ll get back to you.