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Summarizing The Science of Interpersonal Touch

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By Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence

The body surface is not only a receptive organ but also a very powerful interpersonal communication system. In fact, it has even been claimed that social touch plays one, in not ‘the’, most important role in the early psychological development of humans. Despite these considerations, the more perceptual aspects of touch have been much more frequently investigated by researchers rather than the more interpersonal/social aspects of touch. Here, by reviewing the literature on this interesting topic we show that:

  1. Touch can affect people’s tendency to comply with requests (a phenomenon known as the ‘Midas touch’ effect), and their judgments regarding certain services. Surprisingly, these effects occur despite of whether or not people can remember the actual tactile contact;
  2. Touch can help to create bonds between people (couples, groups, etc). This effect is, at least in part, due to the hormonal release of oxytocin following interpersonal contacts that involve tactile stimulation;
  3. Touch is just as effective as vision in conveying emotional messages. In particular, anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy can be easily communicated by tactile contact alone.

This review also shows that the perceptual and the interpersonal/emotional aspects of touch can be well differentiated at both the cognitive and neural level of information processing. In particular, neuroscientific research on this topic has shown that specific conductive neural fibres (C afferents; note that the response of these fibres is higher for the slow stroking of the skin) and certain areas of the brain, seem to be involved in our more affective responses to tactile stimulation. In particular, a region of the orbitofrontal cortex (a part of the brain lying just behind the eyes), has been found to specifically respond to pleasant touch (such as the feel of velvet on the skin).

The study of the more interpersonal aspects of touch is not only important from a theoretical point of view, but also from an applied perspective. Indeed, we suggest that long distance communication systems (such as those related to virtual reality environments) involving the presence of ‘digital bodies’, or even only parts of them, cannot be fully effective without the integration of the more emotional/social aspects of touch.

Here’s an extract from our article, The Science of interpersonal touch:

Surprisingly little scientific research has been conducted on the topic of interpersonal touch over the years, despite the importance of touch in our everyday social interactions from birth through to adulthood and old age. In this review, we critically evaluate the results of the research on this topic that have emerged from disciplines, such as cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience, and cultural anthropology.

We highlight some of the most important advances to have been made in our understanding of this topic: For example, research has shown that interpersonal tactile stimulation provides an effective means of influencing people’s social behaviors (such as modulating their tendency to comply with requests, in affecting people’s attitudes toward specific services, in creating bonds between couples or groups, and in strengthening romantic relationships), regardless of whether or not the tactile contact itself can be remembered explicitly. What is more, interpersonal touch can be used to communicate emotion in a manner similar to that demonstrated previously in vision and audition….

For the full article see: The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., 34, 246-259.

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