It seems too weird to be true and I can’t stop thinking about it. People on the internet are taking hangers, opening them up, and sandwiching their heads inside. Then, their heads turn to the side, seemingly without their control. There’s NO WAY this is real, I thought as I got up to get a hanger from the closet and try it on myself.
But alas, upon squishing my head inside a clothes hanger, my head naturally turned to the side. Later, I tried it on my dad. “Close your eyes, relax, and put this hanger over your head,” I told him. And sure enough, he slowly turned his head to the right.
It’s turning heads! — Turns out the so-called hanger reflex was first reported in 1991 and in a 2015 study, researchers studied 120 people between the ages of 19 and 65 and observed head rotation in 95.8 percent of subjects. The effect is consistent in males and females and it’s directional: You turn your head away from the hanger’s hook. Researchers created a specialized machine (not a hanger!) that presses on the fronto-temporal region and recreates the hanger effect’s involuntary motion.
Previously, it has made the rounds on TikTok, and this week, the hanger reflex got a boost of attention after a tweet from David Schoppik, a researcher at NYU who studies balance and the vestibular system using fish. “Today I learned about the hanger reflex and so should you!” he tweeted. Photos of incredulous hanger-headed people populated the thread’s replies.
Applications — It’s not quite clear what proximate cause is turning heads. What’s the physiological mechanism that recognizes the hanger-induced pressure change and produces a head turn? There’s also little clarity on whether or not the hanger reflex confers a fitness advantage or serves a real purpose.
It’s hard to imagine human predecessors sticking hangers on each other’s heads as they roamed the savannas, you know? But for all its mystery, the hanger reflex may be good for more than entertainment. Researchers can develop simple tools to help patients with Dystonia, a movement disorder that causes abnormal muscle contraction.