The feel of your child's hand in yours, a back rub from your partner, a warm hug from an old friend — in whatever form, a welcome touch feels good. But why? What happens to your brain when someone touches you? What happens to your relationship with that person? And how can understanding the facts about touch make you happier and healthier?
The Science of Touch
Humans are social creatures. Of course, you don't really need proof of that — you know it instinctively. Positive interactions with other people make you feel happy, while loneliness feels bad.
There's an evolutionary reason for that. Once upon a time, community was necessary for survival. In humanity's early days, when warring tribes and hungry predators were constant threats, there was safety in numbers. These days, community often means emotional security rather than physical safety, but people are still hardwired to connect — emotionally and physically — and your brain rewards you when you do it.
Hugging and other forms of nonsexual touching cause your brain to release oxytocin, known as the "bonding hormone." This stimulates the release of other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, while reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. These neurochemical changes make you feel happier and less stressed. Research suggests that being touched can also lower your heart rate and blood pressure, lessen depression and anxiety, boost your immune system, and even relieve pain.
Simply put, being touched boosts your mental and physical wellness.
Facts About Touch and Your Relationships
Oxytocin is self-perpetuating. It's how your body rewards you for making social connections, and it also makes you more successful at forming and maintaining those connections.
Studies have shown that oxytocin makes you feel more generous, more empathetic and nurturing, more collaborative, and more grateful — all of which help make you a good partner, parent, friend, and co-worker. Gratitude, in particular, is such a powerful bonding emotion that many scientists have deemed it the psychological "glue" that keeps people close.
Physical contact is just as important when building new relationships. For example, when strangers shake your hand, you're more likely to trust them, not only because it's a friendly gesture, but because their touch produces oxytocin that makes you trust them more.
Touching is also a powerful and universal way to communicate distinct emotions. Just think about all the different reasons someone might squeeze your hand — to show support and sympathy during tough times, to convey love, to comfort you (and themselves) in frightening situations. Each of those squeezes says something different, and each one feels a bit different, even when it's coming from someone you don't know well.
To prove this, researchers at Berkeley paired up strangers and separated them by a barrier with a small hole in it. One participant put an arm through the hole, while the other tried to communicate 12 unique emotions by briefly touching their partner's arms. Overall, the subjects who were touched could detect gratitude, sympathy, and love with about 55 to 60 percent accuracy.
Science has provided many facts about touch, but perhaps the most important is this: Human beings were meant to touch and be touched, to spend time in the company of other people, and to make emotional connections. In today's digital world, it's easy to forget the importance of face-to-face communication, but you can't shake hands via email or give a hug via text. To get a dose of oxytocin, you'll have to get up close and personal.