This is Your Brain on Social Distancing

Release time: 2020-04-15 08:57

This is Your Brain on Social Distancing

New research suggests how your brain responds to virtual hugs and handshakes.

With social distancing now becoming part of ordinary social life, you may feel that you’re losing an important source of emotional comfort. Your physical contact with people you love but can't touch is replaced by virtual hugs exchanged over FaceTime or Zoom. Family gatherings may involve putting everyone's favorite dessert up to the screen and "sharing" their contributions to the meal.

If you're currently unattached, you can't meet in person the people you'd like to get to know better, and you definitely can't seek out new relationships. Religious leaders give blessings to pictures of people sitting in their places of worship. The list of sacrifices in your ability to connect physically with others goes on and on. Throughout all of this, you might ask, can any of these social distancing measures actually have any benefit?

As it turns out, when you can’t touch others, your brain may actually respond in important ways. Ordinarily, the sense of touch not only allows you to experience pleasurable sensations but can also guide the way you navigate your world, particularly in the social domain.

In a new study conducted just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Leuwen’s Haemy Lee Masson and colleagues (2020) compared brain responses to touch and non-touch social interaction. Their findings can help you understand how to make up for the lack of physical touch in your everyday life by exchanging virtual for real touch.

The Belgian authors note, “The sense of touch enables us to efficiently interact with both social and physical aspects of the environments” (p. 74). When you touch an object, you learn about its properties, but when you touch a person, you pick up a great deal more information, including the person’s emotional state. Conversely, when the people you care about touch you, they can pick up on how you’re feeling.

Even a brief handshake can potentially communicate important psychological cues, including that individual’s sincerity and level of self-assurance. If the handshake along with more prolonged physical connections disappear from your interpersonal vocabulary, what will this mean for your relationships? 

According to Masson et al., completely different pathways underly the communication of information about touching objects vs. other people. Importantly, from the standpoint of virtual touch, it's possible that receiving touch information through visual channels can activate the pathways that communicate physical touch. When you watch other people touch, your brain sets off a chain reaction involving multiple neural responses in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that registers touch in your own body. When you’re watching other people touch objects, the parts of your brain involved in processing information about objects kicks into high gear.

The Belgian authors, in noting these previous findings, call attention to the fact that previous studies fail to take into account the complex nature of social cognition, or the sorting through of information about yourself in relation to other people. This type of processing, they maintain, “is the result of dynamic integration and coordination of the collective brain activity across several regions” (p. 74). What happens when social cognition occurs through virtual channels?

Using neuroimaging data from a sample of 37 participants (28 males) ranging from 19 to 38 years old, Masson and her collaborators tracked the brain's responses to video clips depicting social (human-to-human) or non-social (human-to-object) touching. The social touching clips included hugs (either full or partial body), handshakes, shoulder-patting, wrist-tugging, and elbowing. In the nonsocial video clips, participants watched what were the same types of movements, but with objects rather than other people.

The people depicted in the videos were average-weight male and female, and only their torsos were displayed, not their faces. The one caveat in comparing these situations to your own virtual touching is that participants were reacting to the actions of two other people, not themselves. Still, these were the closest counterparts to the type of interactions you're having now through remote physical connections.

Prior to the study, the authors identified so-called regions of interest (ROI) based on prior research that are known to be involved in visual processing, somatosensory processing, and social cognition. This control ensured that the findings would not reflect chance activations of brain regions not theoretically linked to the perception of touch.

Further controls the research team placed on the experiment included prompts for participants to stay awake during the task (which took approximately 90 minutes while they were lying in the brain scanner) and a calibration of the brain scanning method based on responses to an actual touch given by the experimenters through either a rubber band snap or stroking with a brush.

The findings showed that patterns of communication among brain regions were consistent with the study’s predictions, showing wider activation patterns for the videos involving social than non-social touch. Compared to non-social touch, not only were these activation patterns stronger among the social brain regions but they were also greater between the social regions and other parts of the brain that process more basic sensory information. In the words of the authors, “during the observation of other people’s touch actions, extensive changes occur in the functional structure of the brain, depending on whether the recipient is a person or an object” (p. 86).

Furthermore, the social touch videos elicited more intense reactions in the brain regions associated with “Theory of Mind,” or the way you draw conclusions about other people’s mental states. The networks of your brain, in other words, take in this touch-based information as a way of understanding others.

In part, this type of social cognitive processing occurs as you compare the interactions you’re seeing with your own thoughts about how you react to the touch of others. When you see other people touching, you engage your own internal processes, in other words, to determine how they may be feeling. As such, your brain acts like a mirror network, running the observations you’re making through an internal analysis of your own that engages what you yourself would do in the situation you’re seeing.

To sum up, returning to the question of whether virtual hugs can indeed give you comfort, the findings suggest that, as the new rules of social interaction become part of your reality, your brain may react in ways that can actually provide you with at least some consolation. Although you can't enjoy a virtual meal in the same way you can an actual one, when it comes to touch, there’s reason to hope that your brain will be able to adapt and take this new reality in stride.


Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment. 


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