We all know the power of touch. Beginning at birth, physical touch is paramount in the health of a newborn and that desire for loving touch remains throughout our entire life. The benefits of getting a massage, being touched lovingly, cuddled and caressed are evident —but new research suggests that it may be even more pleasurable to the one giving the touch than even the receiver.
Have you ever noticed that people’s skin seems to feel softer than yours? Well, this new study published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology says that may be a complete illusion.
In the series of studies lead by Aikaterini Fotopoulou at the University College London, participants consistently ranked the skin of another person as feeling softer than their own, whether or not that was really the case. Researchers believe this illusion may be an evolutionary catalyst to ensure that humans create social bonds through touch.
"What is intriguing about the illusion is its specificity," reported Antje Gentsch, one of the studies other researchers. "We found the illusion to be strongest when the stroking was applied intentionally and according to the optimal properties of the specialized system in the skin for receiving affective touch."
Slow, gentle caressing in intimate relationships was the marker that developed the pleasure associates with giving touch. This is what researchers are calling the "social softness illusion" in the experience of the toucher. The areas of the body as well as the stroking speed that are most likely to cause pleasure to the receiver, also have an exaggerated effect on the touch-giver.
"The illusion reveals a largely automatic and unconscious mechanism by which 'giving pleasure is receiving pleasure' in the touch domain," says Fotopoulou. The researchers say the psychological effects of actively touching others has been largely overlooked 'til now.
Some studies done in the past showed that softness and smoothness cause the areas of the brain associated with emotion and reward to fire off. Which ultimately means that this "softness illusion," when touching others, creates apparent benefits for the toucher (and acts as a "social bonding" or "glue" to one another).
The researchers say, for example, that the effect that caressing a baby softly has on the mother, brings about apparent tactile pleasure that far exceeds any other thoughts or feelings she may have during that moment.
According to some polls, massage therapy is one of the "happiest" and most satisfying jobs. I've always noticed how my fellow massage therapists have stayed healthy, happy and extremely resilient when actively working in the healing arts. May there be some correlation here? I think yes.