Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the formation of ‘support bubbles’ as part of the easing of lockdown, bringing widespread cheer.
It means people living alone can join with another household, going inside their home and even staying overnight.
For thousands it signalled the return of what many missed most during isolation — human contact, though we must still socially distance from friends and family who are not part of our bubble.
Physical contact activates receptors in the skin that are connected to the brain, helping to create a psychological bond with others [File photo]
While digital gatherings have kept lines of communication open, they are no match for physical presence. Touch is known to stimulate the release of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ released by the brain into the bloodstream during social behaviours.
Women produce oxytocin during labour, it helps them bond with their babies, and adults release it during sex. Physical contact activates receptors in the skin that are connected to the brain, helping to create a psychological bond with others.
The benefits of such physical contact start very early in life, according to a 2013 study from scientists at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who found that babies who experienced skin contact with their mothers every few hours during the first weeks of life were still benefiting ten years later.
Researchers compared two groups of premature babies — one set cuddled often by their mothers after delivery, the other kept in incubators to protect their skin and reduce their risk of infection.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the formation of ‘support bubbles’ as part of the easing of lockdown, bringing widespread cheer. It means people living alone can join with another household, going inside their home and even staying overnight
Throughout their early years, both groups had regular tests to measure their rates of development.
By age ten the cuddled infants had advantages over those kept in incubators; they were quicker to learn new skills, had better sleeping patterns and were less likely to display physical responses to stress.
Scientists think this early contact helps the prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain involved in behaviour — to develop more rapidly throughout life.
In adults, there are clear medical benefits gained from a hug.
Scientists at the University of North Carolina measured blood pressure in women as they made a speech about a situation that angered them. Some had a hug from their partner beforehand and the rest did not. The results showed the hugged women experienced smaller spikes in blood pressure while speaking than those deprived of physical contact.
Blood tests also showed oxytocin levels rose after the hug; numerous studies have found this hormone can dampen blood pressure by slowing the heart rate.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. shows touch can also strengthen the immune system by reducing anxiety and stress and therefore lowering the risk of catching colds.
But some of the most intriguing research is in the area of pain relief — a huge body of evidence suggests touch can soothe pain, reduce inflammation and even help heal wounds. In a 2018 study at the University of Haifa, in Israel, scientists exposed female volunteers to mild pain by touching their arms with a hot metal rod.
In one experiment, their partner stood close without making skin contact. In a second test, their loved one held their hand. The results revealed having a partner in close proximity made no difference, but when a loved one touched their skin, volunteers’ pain scores fell by almost half.
The scientists said this ‘love-induced analgesia’, or pain relief, was for many patients as effective as over-the-counter painkillers.
‘Touch is vital when it comes to pain and recovering from illness,’ says Dr Cliff Weston, a clinical psychologist at Humber NHS Foundation Trust.
‘We know people who are lonely or socially isolated tend to feel more pain.’
Scientists think this early contact helps the prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain involved in behaviour — to develop more rapidly throughout life. In adults, there are clear medical benefits gained from a hug [File photo]
But what’s actually overriding pain sensations when we feel the touch of someone close? The answer may come from a 2018 study at the University of Colorado, where researchers analysed the vital signs of stressed patients and their partners when they were holding hands, sitting close but not touching, or in separate rooms.
The results showed breathing, heart rate and brain waves differed between them when there was no touching. But when they held hands, all three became aligned.
Scientists think this synchronisation may trigger the release of signals from the brain that reduce pain. It’s already known that showing empathy can ease suffering and this may be an extension.
Our bodies also react differently depending on the type of contact, according to a 2018 study from the Touch Research Institute in Miami. When a loved one strokes our skin, it can stimulate heart rate and generate beta brain waves — the kind that dominate when we are alert.
But gentle pressure has the opposite effect — slowing the heart and creating more theta brain waves, associated with relaxation.
Professor Michael Banissy, a psychologist from Goldsmiths, University of London, says: ‘It plays a fundamental role in our development. A hug can reduce our stress levels and a simple touch on the arm can change how we interact with other people.’