Research shows that physical affection has measurable health benefits. “Stimulating touch receptors under the skin can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress,” Hertenstein says. One study from the University of North Carolina found that women who hugged their spouse or partner frequently (even for just 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure, possibly because a warm embrace increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Over time, lower blood pressure may decrease a person’s risk for heart disease.
I knew how good it felt to get a reassuring hug or squeeze, but I’d never given much thought to how my body interpreted the sensation. “A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy,” explains neurologist Shekar Raman, MD, based in Richmond, Virginia. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others — on even the smallest physical level — the happier you’ll be.”
‘Pleasant Touch’ Decoded: Signals From Stroking Skin Have Direct Route To Brain
Nerve signals that tell the brain that we are being slowly stroked on the skin have their own specialized nerve fibers in the skin. The discovery may explain why touching the skin can relieve pain.
Basically the signals that tell the brain that we are being stroked on the skin have their own direct route to the brain, and are not blocked even if the brain is receiving pain impulses from the same area. In fact it’s more the opposite, that the stroking impulses are able to deaden the pain impulses,” says Line Löken, postgraduate student in neurophysiology at the Sahlgrenska Academy.
The idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”
But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. “I was surprised,” Hertenstein admits.
If touch is a language, it seems we instinctively know how to use it. But apparently it’s a skill we take for granted. When asked about it, the subjects in Hertenstein’s studies consistently underestimated their ability to communicate via touch—even while their actions suggested that touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.
Touch can communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language, “but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions,” Hertenstein says.
Warm climates tend to produce cultures that are more liberal about touching than colder regions (think Greeks versus Germans, or Southern hospitality versus New England stoicism). There are a number of hypotheses as to why, including the fact that a higher ambient temperature increases the availability of skin (“It pays to touch somebody if there’s skin showing or they’re wearing light clothing through which they can feel the touch,” Andersen says); the effect of sunlight on mood (“It increases affiliativeness and libidinousness—lack of sunlight can make us depressed, with fewer interactions”); and migratory patterns (“Our ancestors tended to migrate to the same climate zone they came from. The upper Midwest is heavily German and Scandinavian, while Spaniards and Italians went to Mexico and Brazil. That influences the brand of touch”).
What goes on in your home also plays a role. Andersen notes that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types, “probably because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful.” Tolerance for touch isn’t set in stone, however. Spend time in a different culture, or even with touchy-feely friends, and your attitude toward touch can change.