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10/13/2013 11:28 am ET

Affective Touch Boosts Sense Of Self, Study Suggests

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A loving caress from mother to child or a soft touch between partners may be more than an indicator of love and affection -- a new study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology suggests that receiving this kind of touch could help increase sense of self.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Hertfordshire tested how touch is linked with perception of one's own body by having 53 study participants undergo a rubber hand illusion experiment. In this experiment, a rubber hand stroked each participant in different patterns and speeds, including in asynchronized and synchronized patterns and at faster and slower speeds.

The study participants reported the slower, lighter touch being more pleasant, and that when they were touched more slowly by the rubber hand, they were more likely to believe that the hand was actually theirs.

Researchers said that this finding suggests affective touch -- which is a slow touch, somewhere between 1 and 10 centimeters a second -- plays a role in helping our brain understand the body and sense of self.

"As affective touch is typically received from a loved one, these findings further highlight how close relationships involve behaviors that may play a crucial role in the construction of a sense of self," study researcher Laura Crucianelli said in a statement.

Positive physical touch could also improve health. Research has shown that cuddling can lower blood pressure and release oxytocin, and that the act of hugging someone you love can ease anxiety.

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