What are the benefits of affective touch? In this Spotlight, we investigate.
When we touch, hug, or kiss a friend or partner, that gesture is loaded with meaning.
We seek affection, try to establish a connection, or attempt to communicate a need.
Various cultures use touch in various ways to display tenderness or respect, and other non-human primates use it to create a connection and establish social hierarchies.
Recently, however, some experts have expressed concern that Western societies are experiencing a moment of crisis, as physical touch becomes more strictly regulated and we are less and less likely to engage in social acts such as hugging.
Of course, physical touch is not always welcome and not always appropriate. Between strangers, it can be an act of violation.
As researchers from Finland noted in a study paper published last year, whether touch produces a positive or a negative effect is highly dependent on the context in which it occurs.
“Touch does not universally lead to positive emotions,” they explain. For instance, they note that “cultural differences can result in touch being construed as a breach of preferred interpersonal distance.”
At the same time, research has also found that touch is important for humans when it comes to communicating emotions and maintaining relationships — both romantic and otherwise.
In this Spotlight feature, we will look at the importance and benefits of touching, hugging, and kissing for a person's health and well-being.
Why touch is so important
Famous studies have demonstrated that children — as well as the infants of non-human primates — who grow up without affective touch have severe developmental issues and are unable to relate socially.
Touch is a vital social cue, signaling an offer of comfort and empathy.
Touching, and being touched, activate particular areas of our brain, thus influencing our thought processes, reactions, and even physiological responses.
For example, one study reports that brain scans have revealed that affective touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning and decision-making as well as with emotional and social behaviors.
Certain experiments have also suggested that romantic kissing is an important tool — particularly for women — when it comes to choosing a partner, because the personalized chemical cocktail found in an individual's saliva conveys important information to the brain about their physiological compatibility.
Touch can also be reassuring and calming for a person in distress, since it can communicate an offer of support and empathy.
A study from Sweden — the findings of which were published last year in the journal Research on Language and Social Interaction — found that embracing and patting children in distress has a soothing effect for them.