The Psychology of Touch

Last week we have read a lot about human touch. The reason is groundbreaking research study by Oxford University and Aalto University in Finland: “Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans.” This is the largest study ever done on physical touch, with 1.368 respondents from Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom. All to answer the question: Where do we like to be touched and where not?

Reading articles about this study, however, I couldn’t but wonder what the emotional and psychological effects of touch are.

Topography of Touching

This new study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers surveyed men and women about where they feel comfortable being touched by different people ranging from strangers to cousins, brothers and partners. They found that, when it comes to strangers, there's only one place people are fine with being touched: their hands.

On the body maps above, yellow and white areas indicate where people (female and male) said they would feel comfortable being touched, while red to black areas show where respondents said they would be uncomfortable.

On the body maps above, yellow and white areas indicate where people (female and male) said they would feel comfortable being touched, while red to black areas show where respondents said they would be uncomfortable.

A hint of the fact that psychology (and culture!) play a huge role is given by the evidence that the gender of the subject and the toucher played a huge part in that discomfort. The researchers found that the respondents were more comfortable being touched by women, including female strangers.

"Touching is an important means of maintaining social relationships," Julia Suvilehto, a researcher from Aalto University, told The Independent.

Another surprising fact, the researchers noted, that Italians were more uncomfortable with being touched than the Finnish.

Power of Touch

As Oxford researcher Robin Dunbar tells, touch is universal: 

”While culture does modulate how we experience it, generally we all respond to touching in the same way. Even in an era of mobile communications and social media, touch is still important for establishing and maintaining bonds between people.”
— Robin Dunbar

What makes touch such a powerful thing? What is this universal response to touch? And why can it be so comforting or discomforting depending on the context? In other words: what is the psychology of touch?

Obviously, these questions would take years of research to answer. Yet, here, I would like to start by giving a hint of the interconnected physical and psychological effect of touch.

The Ultimate Medicine

What is especially interesting to us are the potential health benefits.  A CNN article calls touch the “ultimate mind-body medicine.” 

Very interesting research studies exist where subjects were asked to perform something stressful, like public speaking or taking a timed math test. The subjects' partners were also part of the experiment, hugging or holding hands with the subjects when the researchers told them to.

They found that, in fact, people who were given this stressful task, if they'd been holding hands or being hugged, they would have a lower blood pressure and lower heart rate, suggesting that they were less stressed.

Just give me a hug

Hand-holding or hugging also results in a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol, says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana.

"Having this friendly touch, just somebody simply touching our arm and holding it, buffers the physiological consequences of this stressful response," Hertenstein says.

In addition to calming us down and reducing our stress response, a friendly touch also increases release of the oxytocin — also called the "cuddle hormone" — which affects trust behaviors.

According to research conducted at the University of North Carolina, women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates and blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin.


A Matter of Intimacy?

What is very interesting about the Oxford/Aalto study is that, while these neurobiological reactions could be called “universal,” they do vary culturally and psychologically. A hug by a stranger is not a feel-good-booster at all. On the contrary: it makes us feel uncomfortable, as the video below clearly shows.

Obviously, because it’s very intimate.

But it is intimacy, precisely BECAUSE we do not allow and share it with anybody. Precisely because it is related to the people we trust and care about. 

As Suvilehto from Aalto University tells: "The greater the pleasure caused by touching a specific area of the body, the more selectively we allow others to touch it.”

In an interview, psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff, M.D., Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, explains how intimacy is very much related to stress by retarding the stress response. Intimacy, closeness, friendship, can prevent one from feeling the effects of stress. Such partnerships can actually prevent not only the acute feelings that occur after a stressful response, but actually can prevent chronic stress. 

And with winter coming up, a CNN article lists some boosters that relieve stress by leveraging on the power of touch: including a big bear hug, a kneading massage, even to cuddle up with your pet (as already argued in a previous blogpost: Why We Should All Have an Office Dog). 

In a nutshell:

From lowering blood pressure and heart rate to increasing immune function and relieving pain, getting touched or doing some touching makes you healthier —not to mention happier and less anxious.