Just looking at somebody shivering is enough to make us feel cold, according to new research at the University of Sussex in the UK. Volunteers who watched videos of people putting their hands in cold water found their own body temperature drop significantly. The research by scientists in the Brighton and Sussex Medical School shows that humans are susceptible to ‘temperature contagion’.

Neuropsychiatrist Dr Neil Harrison, who led the research, suggests that such unconscious physiological changes may help us empathise with one another and live in communities. He said: “Mimicking another person is believed to help us create an internal model of their physiological state which we can use to better understand their motivations and how they are feeling.” “Humans are profoundly social creatures and much of humans’ success results from our ability to work together in complex communities — this would be hard to do if we were not able to rapidly empathize with each other and predict one another’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.”

For the research, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, 36 participants each watched eight videos of actors putting their hands in either visibly warm or cold water. At the same time, the temperature of their own hands was measured. Their hands were significantly colder when watching the ‘cold’ videos. However, the ‘warm’ videos did not cause a change. Dr Harrison explains: “We think that this is probably because the warm videos were less potent — the only cues that the water was warm was steam at the beginning of the videos and the pink colour of the actor’s hand (whereas blocks of ice were clearly visible throughout the duration of the cold video). “There is also some evidence to suggest that people may be more sensitive to others appearing cold than hot.”

A new study also suggests that shivering and bouts of moderate exercise are equally capable of stimulating the conversion of energy-storing ‘white fat’ into energy-burning ‘brown fat’. Around 50 g of white fat stores more than 300 kilocalories of energy. The same amount of brown fat could burn up to 300 kilocalories a day. Endocrinologist Dr Paul Lee, from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, recently undertook the study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, funded as an NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow.

His work uncovered a way that fat and muscle communicate with each other through specific hormones — turning white fat cells into brown fat cells to protect us against cold. Dr Lee showed that during cold exposure and exercise, levels of the hormone irisin (produced by muscle) and FGF21 (produced by brown fat) rose. Specifically, around 10-15 minutes of shivering resulted in equivalent rises in irisin as an hour of moderate exercise. In the laboratory, irisin and FGF21 turn human white fat cells into brown fat cells over a period of six days. The study is now published in Cell Metabolism.

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