Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] Hungry for hugs?

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] Hungry for hugs?

David Castuciano

'The effects of a hug go straight into core of how we are built and how we evolved as humans – that we are because we are connected'

In headline news – we know we want the “big things” back when this pandemic life lets up – work, school, travel, breaking bread and other recreational activities with others. But in the accounting of human gestures that the pandemic stopped us from doing, I would bet that “hugs,” along with kisses and handshakes, would be on top of the list that we all want to resume, as part of how we acknowledge another’s presence. No matter how much of a protocol of “warm” gestures we have built up connecting with each other online, we cannot drop these “old world” gestures. We still yearn to do them. Why?

Because certain kinds of touch, particularly hugs (if welcomed) activate a special kind of “touch cells” in us which goes into the brain’s emotional highways, making us feel calm and assured. It is like a “free” anti-anxiety pill that you and those dear to you can give each other. The effects of a hug go straight into core of how we are built and how we evolved as humans – that we are because we are connected. 

When you get a hug, which is a relatively “low pressure” on the skin kind of touch, and you feel it especially in you back, specific receptors in our body nicknamed “C tactile” seem to be the “touch” marshals assigned in the special emotional highway that directly send signals to the subregion of our brain called the “insular cortex.” The “insular cortex” is like a hub that makes meaning of the inputs from all the senses, and not just “touch,” and is also involved in “emotional guidance that regulates social behavior.” These “C tactile” receptors specialize in making sense of “slow, gentle touch” as opposed to the fast and heavy ones that may signal danger. 

And once those CT tactile marshals do a good job of getting the message to that special part of your brain that realizes you are being touched by someone you hold dear, then it unleashes an inner shower of hormones called oxytocin – which makes you feel warmth, pleasure, and kinship towards the one you have locked arms with. And guess what, you also get the same rewards for free when you hug your pet

Recent research even tried to figure out in a laboratory setting (blindfolded participants hugging) which of two forms of hugs (around each other’s backs or one hugging the waist) is more preferred. The first one seemed to be more preferred between male huggers with the researchers’ explanation that it may be because it signaled that the huggers are “equal” just like a handshake. Female huggers or male-female huggers more likely engaged in “waist” hugs than hugs between two males. This “clingy” study also revealed that 5 to 10 second hugs are more preferred than quicker hugs. 

We took it for granted that we get to unleash our free “feel good” hormones from within on a daily basis from friends and family, without giving it a second thought. We suddenly lost this daily “lifeline” when the pandemic forced us to drop the hugs to save one another’s health and lives. Economics always values “opportunity lost” or lost assets but when it comes to our emotional lives, we do not seriously consider the holes drilled in our being when we lost the daily doses of soul-fillers we used to get for free – those sanity-restoring, anxiety-busting, life-restoring embraces. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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