Thursday, March 04, 2010

The power of touch.

I've been meaning to point to an interesting article by Benedict Carey on our voluntary momentary touches that can - whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words. He focuses on work of Dacher Keltner, Hertenstein, and collaborators, the subject of previous posts (PDF here, also, enter Keltner in the search box in the left column). In their experiments volunteers tried to communicate a list of emotions by touching a blindfolded stranger. The participants were able to communicate eight distinct emotions, from gratitude to disgust to love, some with about 70 percent accuracy. Here is their abstract:
The study of emotional communication has focused predominantly on the facial and vocal channels but has ignored the tactile channel. Participants in the current study were allowed to touch an unacquainted partner on the whole body to communicate distinct emotions. Of interest was how accurately the person being touched decoded the intended emotions without seeing the tactile stimulation. The data indicated that anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy were decoded at greater than chance levels, as well as happiness and sadness, 2 emotions that have not been shown to be communicated by touch to date. Moreover, fine-grained coding documented specific touch behaviors associated with different emotions.
A forthcoming publication from Kraus, Huang, and Keltner finds that, with a few exceptions, good basketball teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. Another slightly edited clip:
If a high five or an equivalent can in fact enhance performance, on the field or in the office, that may be because it reduces stress. A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol...In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”...“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

The same is certainly true of partnerships, and especially the romantic kind, psychologists say. In a recent experiment, researchers led by Christopher Oveis of Harvard conducted five-minute interviews with 69 couples, prompting each pair to discuss difficult periods in their relationship...The investigators scored the frequency and length of touching that each couple, seated side by side, engaged in... "it looks so far like the couples who touch more are reporting more satisfaction in the relationship,” he said.  Again, it’s not clear which came first, the touching or the satisfaction. But in romantic relationships, one has been known to lead to the other. Or at least, so the anecdotal evidence suggests.

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