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Receiving a warm embrace stimulates the release of oxytocin and decreases cortisol levels, leading to ...
2023-02-15 09:00:00

A Tender Cuddle
The Benefits of Hugging

“Mother and Child,” Mary Cassatt, 1880. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
A Tender Cuddle
A Tender Cuddle

When premature babies are cuddled, they grow faster and healthier, gaining strength. But everyone needs a heartfelt embrace, regardless of how old they are.

Read in 10 minutes

“Anybody know of a cuddling studio in Kraków? It’s time I lowered my cortisol level,” I read recently on a forum for neurotics. Could it be that something associated with love and friendship might soon transform—like most things in the world today—into a material commodity? I hope not, although it’s extremely hard to dispute the significance of hugging. We know for sure that it stimulates the release of oxytocin, which plays a major role in forming and maintaining bonds. It also decreases cortisol levels (one point to that neurotic forum user!), which in turn lowers stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, encourages good sleep, and protects against infections.

Scientists have even discovered specific sensory receptors responsible for transmitting this particular kind of touch. “We divide sensations into two types: deep ones, responsible for proprioception, balance, and coordination; and superficial ones, such as touch, pain, and temperature sensors,” says Nina Kożuch, a neurologist from Warsaw Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology. “The latter are also subdivided into two types. The first is precise touch, which allows us to orientate ourselves in the world. It lets us ascertain the size and texture of objects, and also informs the brain which part of our body has been touched. This is transmitted through thicker, high-speed nerve fibers with a myelin sheath, which lead up through the spinal cord to the somatosensory cortex of the brain’s parietal lobe. But it turns out that we can also receive another, completely different type of superficial touch—that of another person.”

“Something like this?” I suddenly seize Kożuch’s hand. “No, that was an informative touch,” she replies. “The other type I mean is sensitive, supportive, with a specific pressure and dynamic, such as a hug, embrace, or touch intended to console, caress, or stroke. Then, apart from the thick, myelinated nerve fibers, thin, unmyelinated fibers are also activated. Their endings contain CT receptors found only in hairy skin, i.e., everywhere but our palms and the soles of our feet. Nerve fibers connect to the spinal cord and transmit touch information via the rear part of the insula to the prefrontal cortex, which is connected to the limbic system, responsible for emotions. At that point, all these structures activate in the brain, inducing feelings of contentment, pleasure, and satisfaction.”

The Brain Learns

I can’t stop thinking about it. After all, I also feel contentment and pleasure during regular massages, including foot massages, even though I have no hair or—therefore—CT receptors there. Apparently, scientists have also contemplated this, and they suspect that the pleasure derived from hugging is innate, not learned. The brain gets the same pleasure simply by activating thick, myelinated fibers because it has simply learned how. “If the hugging (and other types of touch, such as massage) we feel through our CT receptors lasts for longer, then the somatosensory cortex is ‘deactivated,’ and we stop analyzing and gathering touch data. But we mustn’t forget that we’re still animals. We monitor and gather that data in order to maintain our bodily integrity. Meanwhile, to put it simply, hugging switches off stress mechanisms for an entirely different purpose—to forge social relationships. Hence, it’s linked to feeling pleasure, which is designed to promote such behavior,” adds Kożuch.

She has a point. I recognize that feeling of pleasure while being hugged. For a moment, time stands still, and the swirl of inner thoughts comes to a halt—as if the other person and I were the only people on earth.

“Hugging is a highly evolutionary mechanism. The bonds it helps to form are intended to aid our survival as a species,” explains psychologist and psychotherapist Anna Król-Kuczkowska from the HUMANI Psychotherapy Center in Poznań. “Contemporary neuroscientists term it socio-affective touch. Affective, i.e., containing an emotional component, but not necessarily love, since we can hug people with whom we have various types of relationship. Touch of that type features a sort of sliding motion, similar to stroking a cat. Although it may also include a slap on the back, such movements are associated with tenderness and sensitivity, not something sudden or surprising that might seem oppressive or transgressive. The most interesting part is the “socio-” prefix. Our brains are social organs. Obviously, we each have our own, separate brains, but during a conversation (even one like this, via a computer), sociostasis occurs—we influence each other. For instance, if I put on a stern face and start yelling at you now, no matter how independent and mature you may think you are, you will be upset. We all affect each other and can upset one another, which happens with people we find it hard to be with.”

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

Fortunately, we’re also capable of mutually stabilizing and comforting each other. “That’s exactly how socio-affective touch works: it’s emotionally charged, safe, and regulates feelings. If one person hugs another, the one being hugged relaxes. We also see it in the development of young children—after all, it would never happen if they had no physical contact with their guardians. It helps us build up a feeling of self—as if our humanity is emerging from the primeval chaos. In short, a feeling of self allows us to feel that ‘I am me, and therefore I exist’. This field isn’t only studied by neuroscientists. Philosophers think we need touch in order to feel that something is genuine and real. Children who are not hugged have issues with the inner knowledge that ‘I am me; I feel what I feel; these are my boundaries.’ This is a very broad concept that also affects the ability to regulate our emotions. By comforting and cuddling a child, a parent ‘installs’ that function in them. Most adults are able to comfort themselves but, if not, they can turn to others for assistance. A marked inability to do so is typical in all extreme psychopathologies and mental disorders,” explains Król-Kuczkowska.

Close Together

When people see a parent hugging their child, they often say: “Make the most of it, because they’ll grow up before you know it, and won’t be seen dead with you.” It might sound like a truism, but perhaps it’s good advice. A while ago, a friend told me that her teenage daughter was refusing hugs as a greeting, especially if classmates were around. We laughed, but now that I know the benefits of hugging, it’s not so funny. “Heartfelt contact can be expressed in a million different ways. We can also ‘hug’ with a glance or a word,” Król-Kuczkowska assures me. “It can also prove helpful with rebellious adolescents. As they mature, young people diverge from their parents in a variety of ways. Some get haircuts that nearly give their parents a heart attack, others experiment with drugs, or get into relationships their parents would never approve of. Gaining such autonomy is often linked to acquiring more detachment from their parents. Children transfer their commitment to their peer group—their herd, their tribe—and they suffer without it, or if they can’t find themselves a place within it.”

Indeed, I was looking through some old photos and videos from my school days recently, and I was struck by the close physical contact with both my male and female friends. In practically every photo, people are hugging. The videos show us patting each other on the back, stroking heads, or sitting on each other’s laps. So I’m not worried about my friend’s daughter. I suspect she’s lowering her cortisol level in similar ways during school hours, instead of with her parents.

Why did I grow out of this type of behavior to become less effusive today, even with friends? Was it youth which boosted that physical communication with my best friends? This would confirm the 2018 research by Agnieszka Sorokowska, a professor from the Institute of Psychology at Wrocław University. It aimed to measure the influence of environmental and individual factors on touch behavior, including affective types, such as hugging, embracing, stroking, and kissing. “Our main goal was to conduct an empirical study of whether touching actually is more popular and acceptable in certain cultures, and less so in others,” explained Sorokowska. “It is commonly believed, for example, that hotter countries have more of a contact culture. The scientific community cannot rely on such generalizations, however, so they must be rigorously tested.”

Sorokowska’s research can safely be described as groundbreaking, also in terms of its scale. Her team cooperated with universities all over the world, which snowballed into a sample size of 14,000 people from forty-five countries. Not only students took part in the experiment; half of those polled were local residents, aged fifteen to seventy-five. Its results suggested that social conservatism and religious prevalence in a given country are among the factors influencing affective behavior in close relationships. On the other hand, among individual factors, affective touch is most frequently observed in young people, women, those who do not have conservative views, and those who are fond of interpersonal proximity. This may seem unsurprising, but the study sought to test such commonly-held beliefs scientifically.

Touch and Emotions

It’s nice to engage in a beneficial activity like hugging, but it’s also worth thinking and talking about it. Beyond CT receptors, I’m sure that more new theories and exciting discoveries lie ahead.

“We’ve all heard of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, which is secreted during physical contact, such as sex, breast-feeding, and hugging. Oxytocin is first released during infancy, when we are physically close to a trusted guardian,” says Król-Kuczkowska. “In 2019, Israeli scientist Ruth Feldman presented the results of her latest research during an international conference at University College London. She discovered that oxytocin not only serves to form bonds, but also to regulate emotions. On the one hand, it heightens emotions slightly, enhancing feelings of love, and on the other, in some strange way it regulates and smoothes them out a little,” the psychologist continues. 

“Feldman described how oxytocin works completely differently in people with personality disorders who have experienced early childhood trauma, such as abuse, beatings, or neglect. This can escalate emotions to the point of insanity, as seen in the film Fatal Attraction. After a one-night stand, the heroine becomes so obsessed that she loses touch with reality. Such people are unable to metabolize the positive effects of oxytocin, so they fall apart,” explains Król-Kuczkowska. “Despite Feldman’s research into the phenomenon, we are still unsure of its cause and can merely speculate. My theory is that children who were rarely hugged in security secrete insufficient amounts of oxytocin, and then have a para-allergic reaction to it as adults. It’s as if someone had never eaten nuts before, then finally ate a whole handful—it might provoke an allergic reaction. This proves the importance of body-to-body contact, and shows what corporal, physical beings we are. In that respect, Descartes was wrong to consider the body and mind as being distinct.”

Neurologist Nina Kożuch also mentions how closely our consciousness and physicality are intertwined: “What fascinates me most is the motivation of those who approach us to hug us. Since they are doing it for emotional reasons, it activates their limbic system. But in those being hugged—the recipients of these emotions—everything else, starting with the CT receptors, also triggers the limbic system. This implies that feelings are transmitted on a real, physiological, neuroanatomical level. It’s a bit more complicated, of course. We receive them not only via touch; we also look the person in the eye, talk to them, and smell their scent. But what drives the person hugging us is also mapped out by our brain, so hugging is a way to convey feelings, pure and simple.”

Thankfully, people who have no one to exchange emotions with can also experience the same pleasure as hugging, if they so wish. Scientists have discovered that stroking dogs acts in a similar way, releasing oxytocin and reducing the cortisol level, including in the person doing the stroking.


Translated from the Polish by Mark Bence

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