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Loving touch lowers anxiety, builds healthy sense of self

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Loving touch from others helps build healthy sense of self and improve anxiety.

A new study indicates that a gentle caress may boost your brain's ability to construct a sense of body ownership; thus, helping to create and maintain a healthy sense of self.

The study, published online in Frontiers in Psychology, found that “affective touch”, which means slow speed tactile stimulation of the skin (between 1 and 10 cm per second), has previously been associated with positive emotion and improving anxiety symptoms.

Affective touch has also been known to improve other emotional symptoms in some adults and infants. In other words, something as instinctive as a loving touch to your child or spouse may have more of an impact on one’s mental wellbeing than previously thought.

So what does ‘constructing a sense of self’ mean?

Your brain’s perception of affective touch is one of many stimuli arising within the body, called ‘interoceptive signals’, which help us maintain a sense of homeostasis (the tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium).

In this study, new evidence is presented to support that interoceptive signals, such as affective touch, play an important role in the brain learning to construct a mental picture of the body that ultimately helps you create a clear sense of self.

In contrast, a lack of sensitivity to and awareness of interoceptive signals, such as affective touch, have been tied to unhealthy conditions like anorexia, bulimia, poor body image and unexplained pain.

The study involved 52 healthy adults who participated in an experiment using a common technique known as the "rubber hand illusion”, which tricks the participants' brains into believing that a strategically placed rubber hand is their own.

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While they watch the rubber hand being stroked in synchrony with their own, it causes them to think that the fake hand belongs to them, showing how the brain’s perception of the body can be changed.

Understanding the body and body ownership

The research team, led by Dr. Aikaterini Fotopoulou from University College London and Dr. Paul Mark Jenkinson from the University of Hertfordshire, launched the study to find out if affective touch would impact the brain's understanding of the body and body ownership.

They therefore adapted the rubber hand technique to incorporate four different types of touch, including a synchronized and asynchronized “slow” affective touch and a “faster” neutral touch, again in synchronous and asynchronous patterns.

Participants also completed a standardized questionnaire that measured their subjective experience during the experiment.

The results confirmed what prior studies found: that a slow and gentle touch is perceived to be more enjoyable than a fast and neutral touch. It’s also significant to note that the study revealed that slow tactile stimulation, compared with faster touch, resulted in participants feeling more likely to believe that the rubber hand was their own.

“As affective touch is typically received from a loved one, these findings further highlight how close relationships involve behaviors that may play a crucial role in the construction of a sense of self,” said lead researcher Laura Crucianelli.

The researchers conclude that increasing interoceptive awareness and a person’s sense of body ownership may be key to developing future treatments for some of these conditions. They believe that the sensation of "affective touch" could play an important role too.

"The next step for our team is to examine whether being deprived of social signals, such as affective touch from a parent during early development, may also lead to abnormalities in the formation of a healthy body image and a healthy sense of self, for example in patients with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa," concludes Dr. Fotopoulo.

SOURCE: Bodily pleasure matters: velocity of touch modulates body ownership during the rubber hand illusion; Laura Crucianelli, Nicola K. Metcalf, Aikaterini (Katerina) Fotopoulou and Paul M. Jenkinson; Frontiers in Pyschology; 8 October 2013. Abstract