A welcome touch, whether it’s your child’s hand in yours, your partner’s back rub, or a warm hug from an old friend, feels nice. But why is that? When someone touches you, what happens to your brain? What happened to your friendship with that individual? And, more importantly, how might knowing the truth of touch make you happier and healthier?
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The Science of Touch
Human beings are sociable creatures. Of course, you don’t need confirmation of that because you already know it. Positive relationships with others make you joyful, while loneliness is unpleasant.
There’s a biological explanation for this. Once upon a time, it was important to live in a community to survive. There was safety in numbers in the early days of humanity, when warring tribes and hungry carnivores were continuous hazards. People are still designed to connect – emotionally and physically — and your brain rewards you for doing so.
Hugging and other nonsexual kinds of touching trigger the release of oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone.” Other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, are stimulated, while stress chemicals, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, are reduced. You will feel happier and less anxious as a result of these neurochemical changes. Touching can also lower your heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, strengthen your immune system, and even cure pain, according to research.
Simply simply, being touched has a positive impact on your emotional and physical health.
Touch and Your Relationships: The Facts
Oxytocin is a self-sustaining hormone. It’s how your body rewards you for developing and maintaining social bonds, and also how it makes you more successful at doing so.
Oxytocin makes you feel more generous, empathetic and nurturing, collaborative, and grateful, according to studies, all of which help you be a better partner, parent, friend, and coworker. Gratitude, in example, is such a strong bonding feeling that it has been dubbed the psychological “glue” that ties people together by numerous psychologists.
When it comes to forming new relationships, physical contact is just as crucial. Strangers shaking your hand, for example, increase your trust in them not only because it’s a nice gesture, but also because their touch releases oxytocin, which makes you trust them more.
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Touching is a powerful and universal technique of expressing different emotions. Consider the various reasons why someone might squeeze your hand: to express support and sympathy during difficult times, to convey affection, and to soothe you (and themselves) in terrifying situations. Even when it comes from someone you don’t know well, each of those squeezes communicates something new and feels a little different.
To demonstrate this, Berkeley researchers paired strangers and separated them by a barrier with a small hole. One person put their arm through the hole, while the other attempted to communicate 12 different emotions by briefly touching their partner’s arms. Overall, the respondents who were touched were able to recognize appreciation, pity, and affection with an accuracy of 55 to 60%.
Many facts regarding touch have been discovered by science, but arguably the most important is that humans were created to touch and be touched, to spend time in the company of others, and to form emotional bonds. It’s easy to overlook the value of face-to-face contact in today’s digital age, but you can’t shake hands or give a hug over email or text. You’ll have to get up close and personal to obtain a dose of oxytocin.