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  • Addiction, Drugs
  • Information from Lay-Language Summaries is Embargoed Until the Conclusion of the Scientific Presentation

    774—Neural Mechanisms for Social Communication

    Wednesday, November 13, 2013, 8:00 am - 12:00 noon

    774.13: In touch with your emotions: Oxytocin and touch change social judgments while others' facial expressions can alter touch experience

    Location: Halls B-H

    1Univ. of Gothenburg, Inst. For Neurosci. and Physiol., Goteborg, Sweden; 2Univ. of Oslo, Dept. of Psychology, Oslo, Norway

    Abstract Body: Interpersonal touch is frequently used for communicating emotions and can be a source of pleasure. The neuropeptide oxytocin increases social interest, improves recognition of others' emotions, and is released during touch. Here, we investigated how oxytocin and gentle human touch affect social impressions of others, and vice versa, how others' facial expressions and oxytocin affect touch experience. In a placebo-controlled crossover study using intranasal oxytocin, 40 healthy volunteers viewed faces with different facial expressions along with concomitant gentle human touch or control machine touch, while pupil diameter was monitored. After each stimulus pair participants rated perceived friendliness and attractiveness of the faces, or pleasantness and intensity of the touch. After intranasal oxytocin treatment, gentle human touch, relative to machine touch, had a sharpening effect on social evaluations of others, such that frowning faces were rated as less friendly and attractive, while smiling faces were rated as more friendly and attractive. Conversely, frowning faces reduced, while smiling faces increased, pleasantness of concomitant touch, an effect that was stronger for human touch. Oxytocin did not alter touch pleasantness. Pupil dilation responses, a measure of attentional allocation, were larger to human touch than equally intense machine touch, especially when paired with a smiling face, which may reflect mechanisms of social bonding and affiliation.

    Lay Language Summary: Our research indicates that being touched by another human “sharpens” social impressions of others, making smiling faces appear more friendly and attractive, while making frowning faces appear more unattractive and unfriendly. This effect was enhanced when people were treated with the “social neuropeptide” oxytocin.
    To navigate in the social world, humans rely on information not just from their eyes, ears and nose, but also from their skin. Human interpersonal touch is frequently used for communicating emotions, strengthen social bonds and to give others pleasure. Research has shown that being casually touched by another human can make us more prone to give away a cigarette, spend money in a shop, or tip in a restaurant. However, less is known about the effects of touch in negative contexts, such as being touched by a person expressing anger. The “social neuropeptide” oxytocin, which is secreted from the pituitary gland, has been shown to promote social interest, ability to read others’ positive and negative emotions, and it is released during touch. Our findings suggest that oxytocin and touch together sharpens our impressions of others, likely through increasing social attention.
    Forty healthy human volunteers were treated with a nasal spray of either oxytocin or placebo. Then they were shown images of frowning or smiling faces, while an experimenter simultaneously 1) used his hand to gently stroke them on the forearm (human touch) or 2) applied a mild vibration with a device (machine touch). The participants then rated how attractive or friendly they found the faces, or how pleasant they found the touch.
    When receiving human touch relative to machine touch, people rated smiling faces as more friendly and attractive, and frowning faces as more unfriendly and unattractive. This effect was enhanced when people had taken intranasal oxytocin relative to placebo. Vice versa, the pleasantness of touch was increased when presented together with a smiling face but decreased when presented together with a frowning face. Oxytocin treatment did not affect touch pleasantness.
    Our results indicate that social interactions involving touch from another person are given more attention, which may be mediated by oxytocin. Being actively touched by another person signals that this person is in close proximity and is likely making an approach. The ability to efficiently decide whether a person is a friend or a foe may therefore be more important if this person touches you.
    Overall, our findings may shed light on the mechanisms of human affiliation and social bond formation, and the role of oxytocin in touch.