Physical contact can be so powerful that it can cause us to view people as more favorable, even if we don’t remember being touched by them. We are more likely to tip more, buy products, oblige favors, and feel comfort if we are touched during these situations- however slight it may be. Touch is fundamental to how we understand the world, and even provides us our first lessons in loving through cuddling we receive as newborns. New research shows that it is so influential that even watching someone being touched can cause the same reaction as if we were touched ourselves.
Researchers from Sweden recently looked at how the brain processes sensual contact. Participants underwent MRI scans while their arms were stroked with a brush. The brain responded in a region specific for social interactions and strongest when the stroke was slow (like a caress). Surprisingly, volunteers that were instructed to watch videos of people having their arms being caressed had the same kind of brain activation. They concluded not only that the brain is able to distinguish sensual touch from other kinds of (nonromantic) touch, but also that watching sensual skin contact can make observers experience the emotional meaning of the touch without actually feeling the touch directly.
How does touch function in dating relationships?
Touching is tied to several components of healthy relationship functioning. It is used in a variety of ways: to communicate affiliation in courtship, symbolize commitment, initiate physical intimacy or provide emotional comfort (to name a few). In can also affect our health and stress level: those who report a history of receiving hugs often from their partner have lower blood pressure than those without that same history. Those that are aversive to touch have been linked to high levels of neuroticism, poor interpersonal skills, and lower self-esteem. Individuals who are uncomfortable engaging in touching may also have trouble communicating their emotions.
The research above looks at social, sensual contact that is not overtly sexual. Considering that the effects of watching some romantic behavior can activate the brain the same way as participating in the behavior, when would the bystanders most often see this kind of touching? One way is through public displays of affection. Are their certain stages of a relationship were public touch is more prevalent? Previous research has found that couples who were in the intermediate stages of a relationship (committed, marriage bound but not yet married) were more likely to show their affection publicly than those who were dating casually or already married. This usually amounted to more displays that communicated commitment, not necessarily necking or heavy petting (so that obnoxious couple at the table next to you making out profusely is not the kind we are talking about here). Surprisingly, all forms of touch (both public and private) increases through each stage of a relationship until marriage, after which perceptions of touch drop. Men- but not women- perceive that their partner touched them less after they were married than when they were dating.
What happens to you when you see a public display of affection? Do you get tense and resentful and maybe say “Get a room!”, or do you smile sheepishly, feeling more relaxed and somewhat nostalgic, as if you too have received a physical touch of affection? At what point in your relationship do you consider public displays of affection acceptable?