What Does It Mean When Something ‘Scratches Your Brain’?

“The way she says MFer scratches my brain just right,” one user wrote on TikTok referencing a lyric in Sabrina Carpenter’s song “Please Please Please.” “… something in this performance scratches my brain so well …” one person tweeted about a performance from the TV show “Glee.”

This slang phrase has been all over social media lately. From songs to visual performances to simple sounds, many things are “scratching” people’s brains.

Despite the widespread understanding of what it means, thanks to context clues, the phrase isn’t quite clear. How can something scratch your brain? What does that feel like?

“The phrase ‘scratches your brain’ is often used to describe a sensation that deeply engages your mind, yields a strong emotional response, or provides a sense of relief or satisfaction like an itch,” said Janet Bayramyan, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist.

Think of the near-euphoric feeling that comes with scratching an itch, but remember it’s mental rather than physical.

The curiosity and wonder that can lead up to that scratching sensation can also be “brain scratchers.” They can signal someone “is attempting to try to figure something out or to try to think hard about something that may be difficult or troubling to understand,” added Hallie Kritsas, a licensed mental health counselor with Thriveworks in Jacksonville, Florida. Basically, a thought or situation that’s puzzling, provides uncertainty or is confusing, she explained, will do the trick.

What Leads To A ‘Brain Scratch’?

While it’s a fun phrase, it’s not just that, either. Here’s what can trigger the phenomenon, according to therapists:

Something intellectually stimulating.

In other words, a challenge “that captivates your attention and makes you think deeply,” Bayramyan said, listing puzzles and complex ideas as a couple of examples.

That’s what Kritsas believes is the biggest contributor, too. “The cause of ‘brain scratching’ might be something that is puzzling, new or something that our brain cannot automatically come up with an answer to,” she said. If it’s easy or routine, it’s probably not scratching (or engaging) your brain.

A sensory pleasure.

Sounds, textures — all types of sensory input that feel satisfying or pleasurable count, according to Bayramyan. “These can be sensations associated with ASMR,” she added. Think anything from “clicky” keyboards to fidget toys.

Feeling emotionally moved.

Have you ever listened to a song or looked at a piece of art that resonated with your emotions and made you feel “some type of way”? This is another “brain scratcher,” Bayramyan said.

Kritsas agreed that songs, sounds, visual arts and other forms of media can bring about an emotional reaction or memory that feels like a brain scratch or sense of peace. “It can also remind us of something happy or provide ‘relief’ if it is something we’ve been thinking about,” she said.

Solving a problem or curiosity.

There’s almost nothing worse than having a word on the tip of your tongue or a question you can’t quite answer. So, “finding an answer to a question that has been puzzling you can provide a sense of relief similar to scratching an itch,” Bayramyan said.

MoMo Productions via Getty Images

Music is a big brain scratcher.

The Benefits of Having Your ‘Brain Scratched’

Let’s just say it’s a good thing that “brain scratchers” are everywhere, as they “can definitely have benefits,” according to Kritsas. That goes for both the emotional and cognitive parts of your mental health.

According to Bayramyan, benefits include:

  • Reducing stress and promoting relaxation.
  • Elevating mood, leading to feelings of happiness and contentment.
  • Sparking new ideas and fostering innovative thinking.
  • Providing opportunities for shared enjoyment and bonding with others, which strengthens social connections.
  • Promoting neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to form new neural connections, which is essential for long-term cognitive health.

Kritsas added that it can also:

  • Stimulate our brain.
  • Allow us to challenge ourselves to learn a new skill, solve a puzzle or think about something more in depth.
  • Bring about peace of mind.
  • Boost levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that deals with pleasure and motivation.
  • Minimize levels of stress, especially when there’s a resolution of sorts.

So go all in with these “brain scratching” experiences. This is your excuse to listen to “Heartbreak is one thing, my ego’s another …” from Sabrina Carpenter’s “Please Please Please” on repeat — not that you needed it.