The soothing power of touch eases both physical pain and the sting of hurt feelings, say researchers — a finding that may be increasingly important in our social-media-driven world.
When someone hurts an arm, they may brace and rub it to make it feel better. In the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that our hairy skin has cells that respond to a stroking touch. It's a trait we share with other mammals.
Now psychologists in England say their work shows, for the first time, that a gentle touch can be a buffer against social rejection, too.
In an experiment described in this week's issue of Scientific Reports, researchers recruited 84 healthy women and told them they were going to play a game of Cyberball, an online ball-tossing game.
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What the women didn't know was that their "opponents" were computer-generated avatars.
Participants were told they could throw to anyone they wished, and they believed everyone would play fairly.
When participants reported feeling excluded by the other "players," receiving a slow-paced stroke reduced hurt feelings from the perceived rudeness compared with a faster stroke.
The study builds on previous ones showing that receiving touch from loved ones after a physical injury is supportive.
"In our lab, it's tiny in effect, but the fact that it is significantly, systematically so across many participants is important," said the study's senior author, Katerina Fotopoulou, an associate professor of psychology at University College London
Participants rated how much they felt 'liked'
Pain is ubiquitous across medical disciplines. Yet touch has been shown to improve outcomes in people with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia and in pre-term infants, the study's authors said.
By better understanding how touch relieves pain, hospitals could start to design programs to apply its soothing effects to patients, along with other approaches, Fotopoulou said.
In the experiment, participants threw and caught the ball 30 times. Then they rated the extent to which "I felt liked" and "I felt I belonged to the group."
At this point, researchers kicked up the deception a notch. The other "players" started to toss the ball only between themselves, excluding the participant.
Next, participants were blindfolded and the sensory portion of the experiment began. A trained experimenter stroked the participants' skin for just over a minute with a soft brush.
Some received a relatively quick stroke, while others received a slow one. Fotopoulou said a speed of three centimetres per second "generates maximum feelings of pleasure." What's more, it's the same speed that cells in much of our skin respond to in a comforting way, as scientists recently discovered.
Strengthens social bonds
Fotopoulou said what she likes about expanding touch to make people feel better is just how simple it is.
"Sometimes a touch can speak a thousand words."
Our brains are attuned to combining information from our five senses. And when much of our time is spent engaging with social media, which relies on visual and sound cues alone, it's easy to forget the power of touch, the researchers said. They imagine a way to literally reach out and touch a friend online instead of just "liking" a post or texting an emoji.
'It just requires two bodies doing a very natural thing, socially appropriate and yet it seems to have a very specific effect.' - Katerina Fotopoulou
In person, a hug or caress goes a long way.
"It just requires two bodies doing a very natural thing, socially appropriate and yet it seems to have a very specific effect … that is very plausible given everything else we know in neuroscience and psychology about opioids, oxytocin, all these systems that mediate social bonding."
Much of the understanding on bonding comes from studies of newborns and mothers.
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In infants, touch, whether it's stroking, or holding, is very comforting. It helps the baby to recognize mom by unifying the senses, and helps a newborn regulate temperature better than an incubator, said Ann Bigelow, a professor and researcher of developmental psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
Bigelow followed a group of mothers and newborns for three months and studied how skin-to-skin cuddles helped.
"The babies do seem to tune into their mother better," Bigelow said. "It's not just that the baby gets physiologically more stable. The baby is just more attentive to the mother and will be more responsive."
Researchers still need to look at how cultural differences, temperature and responses among men differ, said the authors of the U.K. study, which was funded by the European Research Council.