The pleasure of touching your partner may be as strong as the pleasure of being touched, research suggests. (Photo: Stocksy)
Does your significant other’s skin feel like silk? That softness may just be in your head, suggests a new study from the University College London.
When researchers asked people to stroke each others’ forearms, the participants consistently rated other folks’ skin as softer and smoother than their own, even when there were no actual differences in skin texture. This wasn’t, however, the case when they touched each others’ palms, suggesting that the perceptual difference — or what the scientists call the “social softness illusion” — may be exclusive to skin that’s covered in hair.
Hairy areas, unlike smooth spots, are populated with C-tactile nerves, which are thought to signal the emotional — and therefore pleasurable — aspect of touch. “The palm of your hand is very sensitive,” since it’s dense with mechanoreceptors, which respond to pressure and provide an immediate sensory experience, explains Mark Paterson, PhD, a visiting sociology lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Senses of Touch. “That’s what I call cutaneous touch.” But then there’s a deeper type of touch, the kind that seems to activate feelings of pleasure and connection, stemming from the C-tactile fibers, he says.
The “social softness illusion” was strongest when people in the study touched each other at a slow pace, a finding consistent with past research showing that C-tactile fibers are most responsive to leisurely touch.
So why would our brains interpret someone else’s skin as being silky-smooth? The answer may lie in the science of social touch. The researchers suggest that we’re wired to perceive touching other people as pleasurable as a way to encourage us to do it, since touch is a central part of human interaction and attachment.
In fact, stimulating the network of C-tactile nerves, the researchers note, may be enough to override the awkwardness of stroking a stranger’s skin, as the study participants were asked to do. And in the context of a committed relationship, C-tactile stimulation is even more salient, since it’s thought to reinforce bonding. “We often really think about cutaneous touch,” Paterson says. “But touch is much deeper than that. It’s affective, it’s social.”
“Touch is very communicative,” adds Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Research has shown you can relay a number of basic emotions, including sadness, sympathy, anger, and disgust, through touch alone, she says.
Even so, Field isn’t convinced that the social softness illusion is an evolutionary tool to promote bonding — she believes there’s an entirely physical explanation for the phenomenon. “When you touch your own arm, your arm is feeling it more than your fingers are feeling it,” she says. “In other words, the messages are being conveyed from your arm up to your nervous system, not from your fingertips up to your nervous system.”
By contrast, when you’re touching another person’s arm, your fingertips are transmitting the information to your brain. As a result, “it’s a very different kind of touch,” says Field, which means a different part of your brain is lighting up. That may explain why people perceive the two scenarios differently on a sensory level.
Still, Field does believe we have an inherent drive to touch. “We find that elderly people derive more pleasure from massaging babies than from receiving a massage,” she says. “The massager is deriving as much as the ‘massagee.’ That’s a therapeutic form of touch — but it’s also the kind of touch we need in our everyday lives.”
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