Slow, Loving Touch May be Key to Healthy Sense of Self and Body Image

First Posted: Oct 09, 2013 09:02 AM EDT

A loving touch may have more to do with a healthy sense of self than you might think. Scientists have discovered that a slow caress or stroke--the touch that is often instinctual for mothers to give to their children--may increase the brain's ability to construct a sense of body ownership and, in turn, play a part in creating a healthy sense of self.

In order to learn a little bit more about how touch might affect humans, the researchers recruited 52 healthy adults for their experiment. They then used a technique known as the rubber hand illusion, in which 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.

In this particular study, the researchers adapted the "rubber hand" technique in order to incorporate four different types of touch. These included a synchronized and asynchronized, slow, affective touch and a faster neutral touch, again in synchronous and asynchronous patterns. The volunteers also were asked to complete a standardized "embodiment" questionnaire in order to measure their subjective experience.

In the end, the researchers found that slow, light touch is perceived as being more pleasant than fast touch. More importantly, the scientists discovered that slow tactile stimulation made participants more likely to believe that the rubber hand was their own, compared with the faster neutral touch.

"An affective touch is typically received from a loved one, these findings further highlight how close relationships involved behaviors that may play a crucial role in the construction of a sense of self," said Laura Crucianelli, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In fact, 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. This means that this type of touch could play a huge role in how people view themselves.

The next step for the scientists is to examine whether being deprived of social signals may also lead to abnormalities in the formation of a healthy body image. The findings could allow researchers to better understand an individual's sense of body ownership and allow them to develop future treatments for some conditions.

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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