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June 30, 2008

back scratching

so..."up", "down", "left", "right" doesn't work, partially because it is too crude and partially because it falls apart if the scrathchee is lying perpendicular to the scratcher .

Attempts have been made using "north" (toward the head), "south" (away from the head), "right" and "left", but again there is some confusion on the rotation of right and left in the perpendicular back scratch scenario.

An absolute placement schema has been tried using a hybrid of polar coordinates and clock based logic - "3 o'clock, midway", but the homunculus mapping of the back is poor due to to insufficient nerve density.

A model based on relative positioning requires both a direction and a distance vector. Terms like "smidgen" and "a hair" are not satisfactory for distance.

A quadrant based model looks promising: the back is divided into 4 quadrants - this way the symmetry problem is alleviated. If the scratcher is in the wrong quadrant, the scratchee can guide the scratcher using numbers (1,2,3,4) or by saying "same side, other quadrant". Within a quadrant we now have "towards spine", "away from spine", "towards head" and "away from head". The scratcher must move gradually within a quadrant but will know the general boundaries within which to work.


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Comments (51)

Sometimes when I'm the scratchee, I ask the scratcher to keep his scratching hand in the same place and I move around to get it where I need it. (This works only if we're standing.)

Posted by: Karen at June 30, 2008 9:53 AM

Just don't do it like my wife: She simply says "over" and expects me to figure out which way that means.

Posted by: Farris at June 30, 2008 9:56 AM

I find itches are mobile - just when the scratchee is close the itch moves a little:
down - down a bit more - left - down a bit - close! - there! - no, wait - up a bit - there! - Ahhhh.

Posted by: rumoko at June 30, 2008 9:56 AM

I just direct my wife with IN (towards spine), OUT (away from spine), UP, and DOWN. Of course that requires a starting spot on say...my left shoulder.

Maybe your quadrant scheme is better...

Posted by: Jeremy at June 30, 2008 10:20 AM

I've always gotten by pretty well with "higher" (towards head), "lower" (away from head), "in" (towards spine), "out" (away from spine), and the essential "other side."

More often than not, "aaaaaaaaaaaa" communicates the precise amount of information.

Posted by: randal at June 30, 2008 10:22 AM

My wife and I use a 6 part quadrant method - which usually devolves into an "Oh god, yes, there, there, all over, oohhhhh!" kinda thing. once a good back scrath session starts up, of course, the scratchee takes over and, like a cat, moves themselves against the scratcher's stationary hand - albeit with scritchy fingers still workin' it.

We thought about making a design for a t-shirt that has the areas mapped out. to share the love.


Posted by: Robbo at June 30, 2008 10:23 AM

uh... you have a cat, right? somehow felines achieve the desired result. 1) use non-verbal cues or 2) a tool of some sort. FYI, this also works during sex.

Posted by: meow at June 30, 2008 10:36 AM

There needs to be a shirt with a Battleship-style grid on the back, so that you can say "Beee twenty-two."

You scratched my Battleship!

Posted by: Anton at June 30, 2008 10:39 AM

I was thinking the same thing as Anton. Like Theees:


Note the tickle-zones which are out of bounds.

A4 *miss*
A5 *hit*

You'd need a corresponding guide for the wearer so that they could track and pinpoint the exercise.

Posted by: ingrid at June 30, 2008 10:58 AM

I see promise in the polar coordinate system using the standard 12 hour clock face and some familiar distance unit to be used to locate a general area on the back and from there the scratchee can be further instructed to the exact location of the itch.
However there are some problems with this system like defining an origin and the "12 o'clock" position. One can make use of a static origin such as the 7th thoracic vertebrae, or use a non-static origin defined by the scratchee.
Another alternative would be to make use of a non-euclidean geometry using the various lines of ones back muscles and ribs. The scratchee could then be directed based on "along that rib, no in the other direction, ahhh there it is"

Posted by: Jakeypoo at June 30, 2008 11:05 AM

Has anyone created an 'INSTRUCTABLE' on how to automate this process??

T-shirts tend to subdue the desired effect of the 'scratch'! IMHO

Posted by: Greg at June 30, 2008 11:08 AM

I love the battleship shirt idea.

My wife and I use a mental map of the contiguous United States. If I want "Maine" scratched, that's the top of my right shoulder. Minnesota or Wyoming would be the back of the neck or a bit to the left. You get the idea. It gives a lot of precision, and challenges your geographic knowledge!

Man, I wish somebody could help me out with Colorado right now... (it's appropriately right over the shoulder blade.)

Posted by: Josh at June 30, 2008 11:11 AM

Stop scratching.

Posted by: Josh at June 30, 2008 11:13 AM

Uh, buy a backs cratcher?

Posted by: Tina at June 30, 2008 11:41 AM

Oh man. I'm totally going to invent an matrix of back scratchers that is the size of your back so you can nail it to your wall and then just scoot against it.

Posted by: BradOFarrell at June 30, 2008 11:45 AM

I've always envisioned a joystick connected to a monitor that would allow the scratchee to move a cursor on a "map" of the back that the scratcher could follow. It could be small and portable and maybe the screen could be strapped to the back of the head or something.

Posted by: Maggie at June 30, 2008 11:51 AM

State names works okay. "You're at Maine right now, move down to North Carolina."

Posted by: Derek at June 30, 2008 12:02 PM

Medical terminology?
medial = middle or spine
distal = outer, shoulder, side
anterior = head
posterior = bottom

Posted by: Awed Job at June 30, 2008 12:21 PM

I have no idea, because I never have people scratch my back, or put sun tan lotion on it. I can touch every inch of my back.. I don't know how long that will last, though.

Posted by: Brian at June 30, 2008 12:29 PM

Posted by: chetchez at June 30, 2008 1:49 PM


I'm certain a shirt-grid-system would be a simple hit or miss, the battleship is clearly reserved for the pant-grid-system.

Posted by: mike at June 30, 2008 1:52 PM

Sinistral, superior, superior, that's it! There!!!

Posted by: Tarek at June 30, 2008 2:02 PM

People please, I give you... The absolute perfect solution system for back scratching accuracy...



Posted by: Shelley Noble at June 30, 2008 2:19 PM

Anton, bravo. You beat me to it.

Extra points for getting the grid tattooed on.

Posted by: typo180 at June 30, 2008 3:20 PM

The lack of an accurate point of reference is only the start of the itch vs scratch conundrum. Upon starting the scratch with vague instructions of "Scratch my back", the recipient become incapacitated, verbal abilities go down the pooper and with them the ability to describe detailed instructions.

I find 'blanket bombing' technique works best. With broad strokes that cover large areas of the back, utilizing the range of the whole arm, not just the fingers. Often, two hands is sure to destroy that pesky itch. You are going to work hard and cover way more ground that you have to, but you're going to hit the spot.

Posted by: gate-c at June 30, 2008 4:35 PM

Moaning and writhing work. Or screaming.

Posted by: ColdFriday at June 30, 2008 5:53 PM

Although this is highly desirable, not every scratchee is mathematically/spatially literate. If you find yourself in this situation, I suggest a spiral exploratory pattern from the center of the back, a simple "Cold-Cool-Warm-Hot" or "Yes-No" and a final emphatic "There!!!".

Posted by: Tom at June 30, 2008 6:06 PM

caudal, rostral, anterior, posterior, superior, posterior...

the anatomists have had it sussed for centuries!

Posted by: Cherrie at June 30, 2008 6:12 PM

With just a single square, the "towards head" and "away from head" work very well. The head is effectively a zero point and everything else is a distance from zero in one direction. The problem with the spine is it is also a zero point but it is located in the middle. So a generic distance of say "six inches from the spine" could be on either side. But, if the sides are named (something other than left and right) or numbered, then "six inches from spine on side 2" and "4 inches from head" make sense. So you just need two quadrants (or does that make them di-rants?)

Posted by: jmo at June 30, 2008 8:27 PM

Just scratch my rump and I'll forget about any other itch. Mmmmmm.

Posted by: bertie at June 30, 2008 10:39 PM

Do me. All over.

Posted by: efemmeral at June 30, 2008 11:40 PM

Late to the game, but... let's not forget the system used by Mike Myers and Nancy Travis in "So I Married An Axe Murderer"... he directs her around his back by describing parts of San Francisco, mentally overlaying the map on his back. You could use your local town, or here's an idea: use Manhattan. Anyone could figure out "Lower east side," "Upper west side," "Central Park South," or "Battery Park" for just above the butt crack.

Posted by: Kevin Miller at July 1, 2008 1:07 AM

I have never had any problems with "up", "down", "left" and "right". I assume the plane doesn't change, so even when there are mis-coordinations, they diminish by keeping a standard approach.

Posted by: GrimEden at July 1, 2008 1:25 AM

I had a math teacher who favored a quadrant system for situations like this. The scratcher first places their index finger somewhere near the center of the scratchee's back and says, "I'm at the origin, where do you need me?" The scratchee then says something like, "-2, 3". The scratcher can get a reasonable scale to start with simply by mentally dividing the scratchee's back into equal segments and estimating the coordinates from there. The first guess is likely to be off by a bit, but should be in the general area desired by the scratchee. The scratchee can point this out, and each time the scratcher is corrected their mental scale becomes more accurate, approaching the mental scale used by the scratchee. Back scratching is imprecise enough that at most one or two corrections should get it just about perfect.

There is still the problem of deciding how to interpret the coordinates. For this, I propose two methods (though you should only employ one at a time or we'll be back at square one!).

The first is to treat the spine as the Y-Axis, with its positive terminal at the base of the skull and the negative terminal above the...derrière. The X-Axis is simply perpendicular to the spine, and their intersection is at the initial point the scratcher gives the scratchee.

The second method places control in the hands of the scratcher, rather than the scratchee. The scratcher should use the edge of their hand, rather than their finger to indicate the origin. The Y-Axis should be parallel to the scratcher's hand, with the X-Axis intersecting at the fingertips. In the perpendicular-scratching scenario you describe, this would place the X-Axis along the spine. Positive and Negative ends would be determined based on which side of the scratchee the scratcher was placed on. This could prove a little troublesome if the scratchee doesn't know exactly what's going on, and becomes especially tricky for angles between zero and ninety degrees, with respect to the spine.

Considering the wide array of people who enter into back-scratching scenarios, the less prep-time and prior communication required to properly satisfy the scratchee (and avoid driving the scratcher insane) the better. With the system outlined above, only one person needs to know how it works before hand.

If the knowledgeable person is the scratcher, then using the first orientation system (with the Y-Axis parallel to the spine) would work best because the scratchee is more likely to be able to think about their own back with the spine in mind as the vertical axis. In addition to this, most of the people whose backs I have scratched were already capable of thinking about their back in terms of quadrants without any trouble. Usually the bottom of the shoulder blades makes a good reference for the X-Axis.

If the knowledgeable person is the scratchee, however, and is able to rotate a simple coordinate system in their head, then the second orientation system is ideal. This way the scratcher is able to clearly define the vertical axis for themselves (with the X-Axis at their fingertips, remember), and can clearly see the quadrants they have defined. The scratchee will then have to think in terms of the orientation defined by the scratcher which is more difficult than using the spine as the Y-Axis, but shouldn't be too hard as long as the scratcher has placed the origin near the scratchee's spine.

For convenience the origin should ALWAYS be near the spine. It is also more convenient if one of the axes is parallel to the spine.

The best alternative I've found to this is to use the shoulder blades as your main reference point. Everyone knows where their shoulder blades are and can point you in the right direction from there. Hopefully they're clear in which direction they mean with their direction ;)

Posted by: Sein at July 1, 2008 1:40 AM

i think its nice that lots of people everywhere scratch one anothers' backs. i had a conversation about this with the man who scratches my back a only a few days ago, i wondered if lots of other people instructed their... erm... people, i guess, on where and how to scratch their backs.
i like the thought of people in bedrooms and kitchens and all sorts of other rooms everywhere all over the world doing it. you think of it as your own quirky thing, but its everyone's quirky thing really.
we use 'right' and 'left' and 'up' and 'down,' but come to think of it, i'm not sure how we know which 'right' or 'left' the scratchee means. we just do.

Posted by: bex at July 1, 2008 4:19 AM

You need more cat videos.

Posted by: Stacy at July 1, 2008 9:46 AM

Use a cheapo plastic comb. Scratcher goes all over in different directions and scratchee says "there" at the sweet spot, or just doesn't say anything and enjoys it.

Pressure of the back combing is an entirely different issue.

Fine tooth combs do not work better.

Posted by: boo at July 1, 2008 10:55 AM

Hey hey hey! Where's the self promotion? Where's the spore promotion? More importantly, where's the artistic description of what the "eff" your creature is!?

Posted by: Antique at July 1, 2008 1:23 PM


This made me think of the show. It seems like the kind of thing you would talk about - not only does it indicate that Google is becoming our dear and glorious leader ("Thanks to Google, "we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes.""), but it's about orgies and hypocrisy too. Doesn't get much better.

Posted by: Eric at July 1, 2008 1:34 PM

I saw the t-shirt years ago in a book of chindogu, along with the dustmop jumpsuit for crawling babies, and the hairdryer hat that blows air on your head from bellows attached to your shoes (so you can blowdry your hair on the go).

Actually the concept of chindogu is something that might really suit Ze fans...maybe that should be a competition in the next iteration of Color Wars. Here's the rules: http://www.chindogu.com/chindogu/tenents.html

Posted by: Christian at July 1, 2008 1:45 PM

Yesterday, while at the cardshop, I noticed, well, you! There you were showing me the proper way to dance via birthday card. I certainly hope you saw some ducats for that one, my friend. Otherwise, Papyrus owes someone some cheese.

Posted by: Ze's Manager at July 1, 2008 3:38 PM

There remains, with any system, the problem of having to teach it.

Even the most faithful will eventually have their back scratched by another scratcher.

Thus, I suggest something more interactive and intuitive.

Let the scratchee place the scratchers hands on a surface, perhaps a bed. Then let the scratchee lay on the hands in the places required. Then allow the scratcher to start scratching.

Surprise 'em wit' th' ol' reversal, I say!

Posted by: Michael Shanley at July 1, 2008 4:13 PM

as my mom would say: "maybe you should have a bath"

Posted by: natisha at July 2, 2008 12:28 AM

Geography is your friend. Imagine a map overlaid upon the back in question. Simply name cities and regions in the appropriate area...

"Austin! No, wait, it's moving towards San Antonio... Lubbock! Lubbock! Ahhh, yeah. Now San Francisco!"

Plus it's sort of a positive reinforcement thing for learning your maps of the world... Just substitute any region you'd like to memorize.

Posted by: PJ at July 2, 2008 11:38 AM

We use a 5 x 5 grid. I find a middle section is necessary, and sections of a 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 grid are too large.

Posted by: Colin Sprague at July 4, 2008 1:47 AM

I do a map of the united states: oh yeah, up by maine... good, good... okay, now over to the midwest, kinda by missouri.

Posted by: mbg at July 8, 2008 1:48 PM

I don't think this very friendly solution got mentioned, so:

1. assume hug position with scratch partner
2. ask them to mirror your scratches on their back

Works wonders, like a full remote control. Wider range than a t-shirt grid, more accuracy and less talking than "higher, higher, over...", and hugs.

Works well for massages too.

Posted by: Forrest Oliphant at July 8, 2008 7:20 PM

It's not the coordinate system that needs addressing, it's the scratching movement, which needs a simple and intuitive methodology for finding the itch.

I would suggest using a golden spiral movement, starting from a shoulder. Then once the scratching hand enters the correct quadrant, it diverges to begin another golden spiral within that area, similar to the fractal growth of a fern.

Posted by: don at July 10, 2008 2:39 PM

I just scratch my own back o_O

I can reach any point on it with either hand.

Posted by: DJ at July 20, 2008 6:55 AM

Superior, inferior, medial, lateral = Up, Down, Towards the middle, Towards the edges

Posted by: A year 1 med student at July 31, 2008 7:40 PM

You people are mental! It is all about the scratchee... Up a bit, left a bit etc works perfectly as it is in realtion to their back! Simple!

Posted by: Drew at October 30, 2010 8:14 PM

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