Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Neuroscientists show how brain responds to sensual caress

Date:
June 4, 2012
Source:
California Institute of Technology
Summary:
A nuzzle of the neck, a brush of the knee -- these caresses often signal a loving touch, but can also feel highly aversive, depending on who is delivering the touch, and to whom. Interested in how the brain makes connections between touch and emotion, neuroscientists have discovered that the association begins in the brain's primary somatosensory cortex, a region that was thought only to respond to basic touch.

A nuzzle of the neck, a stroke of the wrist, a brush of the knee -- these caresses often signal a loving touch, but can also feel highly aversive, depending on who is delivering the touch, and to whom.
Credit: lunamarina / Fotolia

A nuzzle of the neck, a stroke of the wrist, a brush of the knee -- these caresses often signal a loving touch, but can also feel highly aversive, depending on who is delivering the touch, and to whom. Interested in how the brain makes connections between touch and emotion, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered that the association begins in the brain's primary somatosensory cortex, a region that, until now, was thought only to respond to basic touch, not to its emotional quality.

The new finding is described in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team measured brain activation while self-identified heterosexual male subjects lay in a functional MRI scanner and were each caressed on the leg under two different conditions. In the first condition, they saw a video of an attractive female bending down to caress them; in the second, they saw a video of a masculine man doing the same thing. The men reported the experience as pleasurable when they thought the touch came from the woman, and aversive when they thought it came from the man. And their brains backed them up: this difference in experience was reflected in the activity measured in each man's primary somatosensory cortex.

"We demonstrated for the first time that the primary somatosensory cortex -- the brain region encoding basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is -- also is sensitive to the social meaning of a touch," explains Michael Spezio, a visiting associate at Caltech who is also an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College in Claremont, California. "It was generally thought that there are separate brain pathways for how we process the physical aspects of touch on the skin and for how we interpret that touch emotionally -- that is, whether we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, desired, or repulsive. Our study shows that, to the contrary, emotion is involved at the primary stages of social touch."

Unbeknownst to the subjects, the actual touches on their leg were always exactly the same -- and always from a woman. Yet, it felt different to them when they believed a man versus a woman was doing the touching.

"The primary somatosensory cortex responded more to the 'female' touch than to the 'male' touch condition, even while subjects were only viewing a video showing a person approach their leg," says Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech and director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, where the research was done. "We see responses in a part of the brain thought to process only basic touch that were elicited entirely by the emotional significance of social touch prior to the touch itself, simply in anticipation of the caress that our participants would receive."

The study was carried out in collaboration with the husband-and-wife team of Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers, who were visiting Caltech from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

"Intuitively, we all believe that when we are touched by someone, we first objectively perceive the physical properties of the touch -- its speed, its gentleness, the roughness of the skin," says Gazzola. "Only thereafter, in a separable second step based on who touched us, do we believe we value this touch more or less."

The experiment showed that this two-step vision is incorrect, at least in terms of separation between brain regions, she says, and who we believe is touching us distorts even the supposedly objective representation of what the touch was like on the skin.

"Nothing in our brain is truly objective," adds Keysers. "Our perception is deeply and pervasively shaped by how we feel about the things we perceive."

One possible practical implication of the work is to help reshape social responses to touch in people with autism.

"Now that we have clear evidence that primary somatosensory cortex encodes emotional significance of touch, it may be possible to work with early sensory pathways to help children with autism respond more positively to the gentle touch of their parents and siblings," says Spezio.

The work also suggests that it may be possible to use film clips or virtual reality to reestablish positive responses to gentle touch in victims of sexual and physical abuse, and torture.

Next, the researchers hope to test whether the effect is as robust in women as in men, and in both sexes across sexual orientation. They also plan to explore how these sensory pathways might develop in infants or children.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by California Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Katie Neith. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Valeria Gazzola, Michael L. Spezio, Joset A. Etzel, Fulvia Castelli, Ralph Adolphs, and Christian Keysers. Primary somatosensory cortex discriminates affective significance in social touch. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 4, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1113211109

Cite This Page:

California Institute of Technology. "Neuroscientists show how brain responds to sensual caress." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 June 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120604155709.htm>.
California Institute of Technology. (2012, June 4). Neuroscientists show how brain responds to sensual caress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120604155709.htm
California Institute of Technology. "Neuroscientists show how brain responds to sensual caress." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120604155709.htm (accessed September 17, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) Corporal punishment in the United States is on the decline, but there is renewed debate over its use after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

AP (Sep. 15, 2014) The FDA is considering whether to ban devices used by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the only place in the country known to use electrical skin shocks as aversive conditioning for aggressive patients. (Sept. 15) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Shocker: Journalists Are Utterly Addicted To Coffee

Shocker: Journalists Are Utterly Addicted To Coffee

Newsy (Sep. 13, 2014) A U.K. survey found that journalists consumed the most amount of coffee, but that's only the tip of the coffee-related statistics iceberg. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
'Magic Mushrooms' Could Help Smokers Quit

'Magic Mushrooms' Could Help Smokers Quit

Newsy (Sep. 11, 2014) In a small study, researchers found that the majority of long-time smokers quit after taking psilocybin pills and undergoing therapy sessions. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

    Technology News



    Save/Print:
    Share:

    Free Subscriptions


    Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

    Get Social & Mobile


    Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

    Have Feedback?


    Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
    Mobile: iPhone Android Web
    Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
    Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
    Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins