ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (12): 2789-2798.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.02789

• Regular Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Impact and application of affective touch on mental health

YANG Xue, ZHU Xu()   

  1. School of Psychology, Central China Normal University; Key Laboratory of Human Development and Mental Health of Hubei Province; Key Laboratory of Adolescent Cyberpsychology and Behavior (CCNU), Ministry of Education, Wuhan 430079, China
  • Received:2021-10-09 Online:2022-12-15 Published:2022-09-23
  • Contact: ZHU Xu


Daily human touch varies in its forms, frequencies, and experiences. While some types of touch are pleasurable, others can be undesirable. The pleasure of affective touch relies on C-tactile afferents, a class of low-threshold mechanosensitive neurons that innervate the hairy skin. The affective aspect of touch is encoded by C-tactile afferents, and an interpersonal gentle touch is within the sensitive stimulus range of C-tactile, which is commonly applied to express or believed to transmit positive emotions such as love, care, and appreciation. Affective touch refers to these types of touching behaviors, and has positive impacts on individual mental health. Affective touch has the physiological capacity to monitor psychological stress by regulating the level of endogenous hormones such as oxytocin, β-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin. Affective touch can also be seen psychologically as an adaptive social function that fosters relationships, brings about positive feelings, and enhances subjective well-being.
Human has the inherent ability to experience the pleasure of touch, but the acquired environment also plays a critical role. Touch is a type of sensory experience that is closely tied to psychology and culture, and our perceptions of touch are influenced by our subjective cognitive processes. Early experiences of touch and sociocultural factors work together to shape an individual's internal pattern of touch processing. Individuals may interpret touch behaviors in a more prosocial way when they have a positive internal pattern of touch processing, and they can actively engage in affective touch to foster closeness and strengthen social bonds. On the contrary, individuals' subjective aversion and avoidance of touch behaviors are related to negative internal pattern of touch processing, which is shaped by adverse early experiences such as tactile deprivation and childhood abuse. A lack of pleasant touch experiences is related to insecure attachment and various mental disorders especially personality disorders and autism spectrum disorders. Individuals with inadequate functioning of affective touch or a negative internal pattern of touch processing may likely feel disgusted by and thus avoid touch activities, which can compromise the social benefits that come with touch, lead to chronic social withdrawal, and result in aberrant social development.
Touch can aid the treatment of people with mental disorders in addition to safeguarding the mental health of the general population. It is likely that people's lifestyles lack affective touch, and the value of affective touch as an embodied social relationship may be underestimated in daily life. However, affective touch is barred from playing an appropriate significant role in treatment because of the ethical concerns with touching behaviors. Distinct from traditional types of touch, mediated touch and virtual touch elicit touch-like sensations through either other sensory information or other devices as the medium. They can be applied as a transitional or alternative intervention to help people avoidant to real touch correct their negative internal pattern of touch processing so that they can gradually adapt to and accept affective touch, and eventually use affective touch as an effective way to improve their interpersonal functioning and mental health.

Key words: affective touch, embodied cognition, mental health

CLC Number: