In February 2015, McVitie’s opened a temporary cuddle café which provided cuddles accompanied by biscuits, cake and tea. According to the Independent, this was McVitie’s response to research which showed that just under 75% of Britons would like more cuddles in their life.
The Huffington Post noted that the cuddle café was the brainchild of Dr Stuart Farrimond, and we contacted him to talk about all things cuddle-related. It therefore gives us great pleasure to share Dr Farrimond’s insights below!
1) We understand that you conducted research about cuddles. Please could you share some details with us from the study?
Science shows us that human beings are designed to cuddle. The physical embrace is a both a necessity for physical safety and a requirement for physiological wellbeing. It has been passed down through evolution: practically every land-based mammal demonstrates an affinity for embracing another of its kind. An outward expression of trust, interdependence and intimacy; in many situations hugging can be the difference between life and death. And yet, in this ‘touch-screen era’, many of us are avoiding physical contact more than before.
In the early years of mammalian life, hugging a parent is essential to stay safe from predators or to be shielded from the elements. For humans, however, it provides additional benefits, as has been demonstrated in recent animal and human research.
The process of hugging offers not just a physical convenience for staying warm but acts to ensure that the body’s internal chemistry remains in balance. Seconds after initiating a hug, the tiny pituitary gland at the base of the skull releases a surge of the hormone oxytocin (the so-called ‘love hormone’). Spreading rapidly through the body and brain via the blood, this hormone exerts a powerful effect on many parts of the brain – particularly the frontal (‘thinking’) lobes. Oxytocin affects emotions and thought patterns: it increases trust, generosity and empathy while reducing fear. Simultaneously, hugging causes a reduction in circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The end result is a lowered blood pressure and more active immune system. Persistently high levels of circulating cortisol hormone are a marker of a stressful lifestyle and is linked to impaired learning and memory, reduced bone density, increased blood cholesterol and higher risk of heart disease.
Hugging often imbues a mild euphoria. Within the brain, ‘pleasure centres’ are responsible for the pleasant feelings we recognise as adults. The exact mechanism by which hugging exerts this powerful emotion is not fully understood. It seems likely that the mere act of touch is a direct driver for these emotions: infants who receive regular tactile stimulation (i.e. physical play and hugs) bond more readily with their carer and tend to have better sleep patterns. It is probable that ‘hug neurons’ exist within the brain that trigger positive emotions and oxytocin release when an embrace is felt across the torso.
There are other factors at play in addition to physical touch. For example, close proximity to another person allows for the transfer of pheromones: research shows us that when a man inhales vapours from a woman’s tears, he experiences a drop in testosterone levels and reduced aggression. A degree of existing psychological attachment is important for hugs to have a positive effect. Recent research has indicated that hugging a stranger leads to increased stress levels, a higher blood pressure rises and suppression of oxytocin.
And yet, for all the recent gains made in our understanding of the science of hugging, virtually all research to date has focused on human-human embraces. This is undeniably important but there are often times when it is impracticable to hug another person. In such situations, an alternative embrace-based therapy may offer similar health benefits.
In view of hugging’s potential health-conferring effects, it was important to establish whether hugging non-human objects can similarly improve mood and physiology. Our pilot research project explored whether hugging soft toys and furnishings may have any psychological and physiological benefits.
2) You talk about how cuddling a soft toy can trigger a similar emotional response to cuddling a person. Can you elaborate on this for our readers?
The calming, blood pressure-lowering effect of hugging a soft toy is similar, but much smaller than from hugging a person.
Male and females aged 30 - 60 years were randomly assigned to hug either another person (a close friend or partner), a large cuddly toy or a plain white cushion for 20 seconds (previous research has indicated this to be the minimum time needed to trigger a response in the body). Overall happiness and blood pressure was recorded immediately before and after the embrace:
No significant drop in systolic blood pressure was seen in the cushion group.
3) What are some of the physical and psychological benefits of hugs?
We don’t know for sure but an increasing body of evidence shows that mental and physical health are dependent on frequent tactile touch and hugs: the current scientific consensus suggests that people who hug frequently have a more robust immune system, reduced blood pressure and more resilient mental health when compared to those who do not.
4) The Huffington Post paraphrases a quote you made about, “the majority of Brits are unhappy with the amount of cuddles in their life, which are important for our health and happiness.” Why do you think we’re giving and receiving less hugs these days?
Although definitive research is needed to find out whether physical embraces are falling out of fashion – and whether this is taking place across the world, it is likely that any such decline is at least partly due to the ‘touch-screen’ culture, which allows us to be in touch without having to touch!
5) McVitie’s once ran a two day Cuddle Café. Can events like these help people consider the amount of touch they have in their own lives? Do you have any suggestions for how people can people get more platonic touch and hugs in their lives?
The benefits of cuddles are reversed if the embrace is from a stranger, so it is important that any cuddle café or hugging event encourages people to embrace only those who they are comfortable with. Random hugs with an unsuspecting passers-by increases stress hormone levels. Also, not everyone is comfortable with hugging friends, reserving a physical embrace for family members – there is nothing wrong with this. As with all good habits, regular embraces with family and loved ones need to be gradually incorporated into our routines.
About Dr Stuart Farrimond
Stuart Farrimond is a science and medical writer, educator and presenter. He is a trained medical doctor and qualified teacher and now passionate science writer and broadcaster with a speciality in food science. A brain cancer survivor, Stuart makes regular TV, radio and public appearances, drawing upon his scientific and medical knowledge.
He is the author of The Science of Cooking and Spice (‘Science of Spice’ outside of USA) and has published academic research in the International Journal of Eating Disorders and his writing and research has been published in The Independent, New Scientist, BBC Focus, Red Bulletin, Popular Science (US), The Tampa Tribune, and Daily Mail among others.