The Grapevine

Tempted To Touch: The 'Social Softness Illusion' Makes Other People's Skin Feel Softer So We Can Build Social Bonds

lover's touch
People are primed to perceive someone else's skin as softer and smoother than their own. Francisco Osorio, CC BY 2.0

You might owe the softness of your partner’s skin to the power of your own mind rather than their new moisturizer, a new study published in Current Biology suggests.

Conducting a series of experiments on touch perception, the study authors found evidence for what they’ve coined the “Social Softness Illusion,” such that touching someone else’s skin tends to feel softer and smoother than when you touch your own, regardless of whether or not it actually is.

"What is intriguing about the illusion is its specificity," said study author Dr. Antje Gentsch, of the University College London, in a statement. "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."

That specialized system involves a certain class of nerves known as C tactile (CT) afferents, which are believed to be “specifically tuned to human caresses, giving rise to pleasant sensations,” as the authors explained.

Perhaps for that reason, the illusion seemed to only work when the study subjects were asked to touch someone else’s forearm rather than their palm, where there are no CT afferents present under the skin. Similarly, it didn’t work when the participants were asked to touch a piece of cotton over someone’s skin and their own, with the cotton feeling as equally soft in either circumstance.

The authors believe that the illusion may provide more of an explanation for why people - and perhaps other mammals - are eager to touch one another.

“[T]his novel illusion leads to the first demonstration in humans of the hedonic benefits of social touch for the touch provider,” the authors concluded. “Recent research suggests that softness and smoothness are rewarding tactile attributes that act as reinforcers of behavior and, in opposition to other tactile cues, have been found to produce larger activation in reward and affective brain circuits than in primary sensory areas.”

And in turn, the rewarding sensations we receive from touching and being touched by others  makes us likely to seek out and reinforce our social bonds.

About the only thing that didn’t feel better about touching someone else was the subjects’ comfort level, since it wasn’t significantly different whether they were touching their own forearm skin or someone else’s.

That particular quirk, however, may have more to do with the study’s design, since the subjects had to touch a stranger’s skin while the rest of their body was kept hidden from them. The authors are hopeful that they can test out how the illusion works when it comes to friends and partners, as well as further explore the mechanisms behind affective touch.

Source: Gentsch, A, Panagiotopoulou E, Fotopoulou A.  Active Interpersonal Touch Gives Rise to the Social Softness Illusion. Current Biology. 2015.

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