Why does a friendly or supportive touch have such universal and positive effects? What’s happening in our brains and bodies that accounts for this magic?
To understand this, we’ll start on the outside — with the skin. It’s our largest organ, covering about 20 square feet, which is about the size of a twin mattress.
If somebody touches you, there’s pressure pushing on your skin at the point of contact. And just under the skin are pressure receptors called “Pacinian corpuscles,” says Tiffany Field, one of the world’s leading touch researchers and the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in Florida.
EFFECT ON Stress
Hand-holding or hugging also brings about a loss of the strain hormone cortisol, says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw College or university in Indiana.
“Having this friendly touch, just an individual simply coming in contact with our arm and keeping it, buffers the physiological implications of the stressful response,” Hertenstein says.
Furthermore to soothing us down and reducing our stress response, an agreeable touch also increases release of the oxytocin — also known as the “cuddle hormone” — which impacts trust behaviors.
“Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, which basically promotes emotions of devotion, trust and bonding,” Hertenstein says.
Oxytocin levels rise with keeping hands, hugging — and especially with therapeutic massage. The cuddle hormone makes us feel close to one another.
“It really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people,” Hertenstein says.
Besides engendering feelings of closeness, being touched is also pleasant. We usually want more. So what’s going on in the brain that accounts for these feelings?
Hertenstein says recent studies from England pinpointed an area in the brain that becomes highly activated in response to friendly touch. It’s a region called the orbital frontal cortex located just above your eyes. It’s the same area that responds to sweet tastes and pleasing smells.
“A soft touch on the arm makes the orbital frontal cortex light up, just like those other rewarding stimuli,” Hertenstein says. “So, touch is a very powerful rewarding stimulus — just like your chocolate that you find in your cupboard at home.”
The surging of oxytocin makes you feel more trusting and connected. And the cascade of electrical impulses slows your heart and lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed and more soothed. Remarkably, this complex surge of events in the brain and body are all initiated by a simple, supportive touch.
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