Have you had the chance to hug someone recently? Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic and coinciding social distancing recommendations, there have been fewer opportunities for us to hug or come into direct contact with others. However, it is known through extensive research that human touch actually plays a very important role in our mental health.
The Mind and Body Are Connected
Our minds are deeply interconnected with our state of wellbeing. People with symptoms of depression frequently look down at the ground, and simply using facial muscles to fake a smile can reduce stress and induce positive emotions. In the same way, the largest organ in the human body – the skin – is also deeply connected to our mental state. The skin acts as the boundary between our surroundings, thus it strongly influences our self-awareness.
Skin: The Body’s Third Brain
The brain is formed from the same ectoderm (tissue layer) as our skin during development, and recent research shows that the same substances are present in the brain and skin. In addition, a very high percentage of the brain area is used to process skin sensations, and therefore the influence of skin sensations on the brain is considered to be very large. There’s ongoing research looking into the possibility of our skin processing a certain amount of information independent from the brain. For these reasons, the skin is considered by some as the human body’s “third brain”, or the “exposed brain”.
(As a side note: The gut, which can act independently of the brain, is considered the “second brain”. This is why we sometimes refer to our instinctive thoughts as “gut feelings”.)
Warming the Skin Warms the Heart
In one experiment, participants were provided with cups of either hot or cold coffee to hold. Then they were asked to give their impression of a fictional person’s biography. The results showed that participants with hot coffee were more likely to label the fictional individual as “friendly” or “generous”. Other experiments have also shown that warming the skin makes people feel closer to build trust. This is because our “insular cortex” in the brain is involved in both “skin warmth” and “emotional warmth.”
The Speed and Pressure of Touch
The skin understands the softness of an object and this is believed to affect the mind.
For example, if you observe a baby, you’ll see them continuously sucking on a pacifier or holding a blanket. This is because they get a sense of security and satisfaction from touching something soft like a pacifier or a blanket.
The “speed” of touch also affects our state of mind. The appropriate speed of contact to reduce stress and promote mental stability is 2 – 4 inches ( 5 – 10 cm) per second. A good rule of thumb is to imagine gliding the hand from shoulder to wrist over the course of about 5 seconds. It’s also important to use the entire palm of the hand to apply the right amount of pressure at this time. If you are feeling anxious, tense, or stressed out, massaging the limbs with slow, moderate pressure may help calm the nerves.
Relaxing Effects of the 1/F Fluctuation
When we experience human touch, a vibration is emitted at a frequency called the “1/f fluctuation”. This frequency is often found in nature, in a gentle breeze or a babbling stream, and is said to soothe our minds to induce a relaxed state. When the brain feels a pleasant sensation, it releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is closely related to our emotions of love and trust, and the secretion of oxytocin helps with mental and physical relaxation. If you see someone who seems upset or sad, you can comfort them by stroking their back or caressing their head. A “1/f fluctuation” touch is sure to soothe their minds.
Human Contact in the Modern Age
In the field of psychology, ‘personal space’ is commonly understood as a requirement to avoid stress. Some people feel uncomfortable or violated if you touch them out of the blue. Especially since the spread of COVID-19, we are required to be more mindful of reducing contact with others and maintaining a social distance.
However, one thing that will never change for humanity is the fact that human contact is soothing. It’s our natural instinct to seek contact with other people. In this modern age, many of us are overstressed with relationships and social anxiety. Perhaps initiating meaningful contact with our loved ones will heal our hearts and build trust in relationships.
Yamaguchi, H. (2014). Healing of mind by body contact. Journal of the Japan Society of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 64(3), 132-140. doi: 10.3777/jjsam.64.132