A new study suggests that a gentle caress may be the key to feeling comfortable with one's self. Researchers say a loving touch may increase the brain's ability to construct a sense of body ownership and, in turn, play a part in creating and sustaining a healthy sense of self.
These findings come from a new study published online in Frontiers in Psychology, led by Dr. Aikaterini Fotopoulou from University College London and Dr. Paul Mark Jenkinson from the University of Hertfordshire, both in the UK.
Affective touch, characterized by slow speed tactile stimulation of the skin (between 1 and 10 cm per second) has been previously correlated with pleasant emotion and improving symptoms of anxiety, as well as other emotional symptoms in certain groups of adults and infants.
So, what is often an instinctive gesture from a mother to a child or between partners in romantic relationships may have more lasting implications for a person's mental wellbeing.
Constructing a sense of self
The perception of affective touch in the brain is one of a number of interoceptive signals (stimuli arising within the body) that help us monitor homeostasis.
An affective touch is typically received from a loved one and plays an important role in developing our sense of self.
This study provides new evidence to support the existing idea that interoceptive signals, such as affective touch, play an important role in how the brain learns to construct a mental picture and an understanding of the body, which ultimately helps to create a coherent sense of self.
Decreased sensitivity to and awareness of interoceptive signals, such as affective touch, have been linked to body image problems, unexplained pain, anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
The study, of 52 healthy adults, used a common experimental technique known as the "rubber hand illusion." This is where participants' brains are tricked into believing that a strategically placed rubber hand is their own.
As they watch the rubber hand being stroked in synchrony with their own, they begin to think that the fake hand belongs to them. This technique demonstrates the changeable nature of the brain's perception of the body.
Body and body ownership
Dr. Fotopoulou's team wanted to test whether affective touch would impact the brain's understanding of the body and body ownership.
The team 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 were also asked to complete a standardized "embodiment" questionnaire, to measure their subjective experience during the experiment.
The results confirmed previous findings that slow, light touch is perceived as being more pleasant than fast touch. More importantly, the study demonstrated that slow tactile stimulation made participants more likely to believe that the rubber hand was their own, compared with the faster neutral touch.
Laura Crucianelli, lead researcher on the study, says:
"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."
Boosting interoceptive awareness and an individual's sense of body ownership could be key to developing future treatments for some of these conditions, and the sensation of "affective touch" could play an important role.
Dr. Fotopoulou concludes:
"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."
Medical News Today recently reported on another study employing the rubber hand illusion, which showed that a virtual hand could help treat anxiety and body image disorders.