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Skin of other people is softer? It’s just a useful illusion, study shows

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Posted September 14, 2015

We all been there – we take hand of another person, touch face of our romantic partner or unintentionally touch other person‘s skin and immediately feel that their skin is much softer than ours. And it happens quite often – skin of other people usually feels softer.

We all notice that skin of other people always feels softer than our own. But it is just an illusion, which is part of a reward system in our brain, which motivates us to seek for human interaction and form social bonds. Image credit: Elizabeth Ann Colette via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

We all notice that skin of other people always feels softer than our own. But it is just an illusion, which is part of a reward system in our brain, which motivates us to seek for human interaction and form social bonds. Image credit: Elizabeth Ann Colette via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

Now scientists at the University College London have conducted a study and found that this experience may often be just an illusion. In other words, someone else‘s skin may feel softer to us, regardless is it is actually that soft.

During the research participants of the study consistently rated the skin of another person as being softer than their own, regardless if it was actually any softer. Scientists say that there is an explanation to this phenomenon. They say that it may have a social purpose – researchers think it may represents motivation humans have been given to be keener to build social bonds through touch. Antje Gentsch, member of the research team, said that this phenomenon is particularly interesting because of the specificity of the illusion. He said: “We found the illusion to be strongest when the stroking was applied intentionally and according to the optimal properties of the specialized system in the skin for receiving affective touch.”

Researchers say that this illusion is typically felt when person gently strokes skin of another person. It is the kind of touch usually found in intimate relationships. Scientists say that the illusion of softness is encoded in the mind of person who is touching. In other words, person chooses a place he is going to touch, speed and other parameters in order for it to be pleasurable for the person being touched. This means, there is an automatic and unconscious mechanism in out brain, by which “giving pleasure is receiving pleasure”.

It is known for a long time that touch is extremely important for normal human development. It is important since infancy to old age and contributes greatly to good physical and mental health. There were numerous studies that showed how beneficial touch is for the receiving side. For example, babies that are born prematurely are known to receive significant health benefits from time spent in direct physical contact with their mothers. However, until now science did not focus on the giving side of the touching and potential health benefits for the person touching skin of his friend or family member have been largely unknown.

Now scientists think they found potential benefits of touching another person and it is related to the illusion of smoothness. There have been numerous studies that demonstrated that sensing softness and smoothness actually stimulates parts of the brain associated with emotion and reward. This, combined with latest results about illusion of smoothness, means that feeling that other people’s skin is soft ensures that reaching out and touching another person comes as its own reward.

Scientists say that this reward system functions as a kind of “social glue”, sticking people together. For example, mother receives a tactile pleasure from touching her baby in a gentle manner. This is thought to be the biggest pleasure mother may have in the moment. Although this research is interesting as is, scientists say they have next steps already planned.

Now researchers will examine the neurophysiological mechanisms involved in giving affective touch. They are also interested in investigating possible differences that may exist in the experience of this softness illusion among partners, friends, and strangers. Scientists want to know if, for example, we find skin of our romantic partners softer than our friends and so on. However, even without this knowledge now we know that as grass is greener on the other side of the fence, skin of other people also feels softer, even if it is just an illusion.

Source: UCL

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