Your body’s built-in appreciation for hugs ‘n’ cuddles
Hugs are funny things. They can be kind of off-putting, largely because of the amount of intimacy involved. On the other hand, while an unwanted hug can feel repulsive, the right hug can feel great. At the right moment, a soft stroke on the arm can be relaxing and energizing at the same time. All this is tied to the ways that we’re wired to be social animals, with touch being a way that we create and strengthen bonds with each other. Kind of like petting your dog.
Caressing is enjoyed in your cranium
If there were any doubt that gentle touch was an important part of our evolution, it turns out that we even have a set of dedicated nerves to process what most people would consider pleasant caressing. The afferent c-tactile neurons are hooked up only to hairy skin, alongside the usual nerves for sensing touch, pain and pressure. These sensors are specialized to detect soft, slow strokes, like a gentle touch on the arm. When activated, they trigger your brain to release endorphins, which are everyone’s favorite neurotransmitters thanks to their enjoyable properties as our built-in painkillers. Since emotional pain is partly experienced in our brain’s physical pain centers, endorphins can even improve mood, explaining why a good hug helps you feel “better.” Even though these neurotransmitters work like super-powered morphine, we don’t get addicted to them in any destructive manner, meaning we won’t insist on endless, gratuitous petting just for the associated buzz. That’s where the oxytocin comes in.
Endorphins will activate reward centers in the brain to train us to repeat whatever we did right, but oxytocin helps reinforce our desire for more cuddling as well. Oxytocin is involved in a number of different processes, including the unglamorous task of water regulation, but thanks to it’s role in nursing and suckling, it is also associated with feelings of physical intimacy. As long as your frontal lob feels there’s a good bond with your partner, this cascade of responses can make it a very pleasant experience.
Grooming feels great
As predisposed to affection as we seem, humans didn’t invent these mechanisms. It’s all been traced back to other mammals, from monkeys to voles, and their social grooming habits. Primates in particular spend a lot of time picking through each other’s fur for bugs and debris, and there’s evidence that this isn’t just because these species desperately need to invent combs and shampoo. They also get endorphin and oxytocin boosts when grooming members of their group that they’re bonded with somehow, and these bonds are strengthened by this physical contact. Relationships can be developed that later lead to better cooperation between individuals, indicating that touching and petting might have sort term uses, but also serves as a tool to build up a community in the long term.
Source: #HugaBrit: the science of hugs and why they (mostly) feel so good by Robin Dunbar, The Conversation