People often use the phrase, “warm fuzzy feeling,” to describe how they feel when they give and receive love and affection. Researchers suggest this “warm” feeling may be more than just a popular saying, as brain areas involved in the perception of physical warmth may also be triggered during social warmth experiences. According to a recent study, social warmth increases feelings of physical warmth and vice versa, which lends to the possibility these two can be substitutable in daily life.

The closest bonds are typically formed out of warm, friendly interactions and warm feelings associated with being socially connected. These feelings of social warmth can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness, and vice versa, without awareness. Social affiliations between “friend or foe” and “cold or warm” tend to be interchangeable, as someone who is friendly is perceived as “warm,” whereas someone who is a foe is often described as “cold.”

Tristen Inagaki and Naomi Eisenberg, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, investigated the relationship between social warmth and physical warmth, and whether feelings of physical warmth increased feelings of social cohesion. Twenty participants, with an average age of 20, were asked to lie down on an fMRI machine to accurately evaluate brain activity after completing a series of physical warmth and social tasks. The participants were also asked to rate how warm and socially connected they felt on a scale of one (not at all) to seven (very) after completing the tasks, respectively.

In the first task, the participants were asked to read either two positive or two neutral messages from close friends. They included: “Whenever I am completely lost, you are the person I turn to,” which constituted a positive statement, while "You have curly hair" constituted a neutral statement, according to The Daily Mail. A 6.14 average rating was given when the individuals read positive messages compared to a rating of 3.8 after reading neutral facts.

For the physical warmth task, the participants held a ball heated to room temperature and a warm pack, each for 10 seconds, repeating the exercise five times. Simply holding the warm pack led to a higher rate of connection — 2.47 compared to 1.63 for holding the ball.

“These results may have implications for the beneficial effects of physical warmth on social relationships,” the researchers wrote.

The results of the fMRI data show that a common neural mechanism is shared between physical and social warmth experiences. The neural systems in place that detect social connection may have been “borrowed” from the neural systems that detect physical warmth, the scientists believe.

These findings suggest that individuals seek out social connections — social warmth — to reinforce physical warmth.

In a series of studies published in the journal Emotion, researchers at Yale University found that people tend to self-regulate their feelings of social warmth through applications of physical warmth, unaware that they do so. Throughout all the findings, the researchers found social coldness was associated with a likeliness of taking warm baths or showers. Physical coldness increased feelings of loneliness, whereas feeling warmth heightened participants' desire for social affiliation and emotional regulation. All of the participants in the studies were not explicitly aware of the relationship between physical and social warmth (coldness) despite engaging in these practices.

The series of studies, and the most recent study, suggest that physical and social warmth could be substitutable to an extent in an individual’s daily life as a means of self-regulation.

“Given the importance of social connections for general well-being and happiness, this may inform larger interventions designed to combat feelings of isolation or loneliness through temperature manipulations,” wrote Inagaki and Eisenberg.

For tips on how to keep physically warm and ward off the winter blues this season, click here.


Eisenberger, NI, Inagaki TK. Shared Neural Mechanisms Underlying Social Warmth and Physical Warmth. Psychological Science. 2013.

Bargh JA, Shalev I. The Substitutability of Physical and Social Warmth in Daily Life. Emotion. 2013.