How Your Brain Reacts to Hugs

Hugs – we see these thrown all the time. From mothers to daughters, fathers to mothers, friends to friends and even athletes to fellow athletes! Hugs feel great. They are a symbol of acceptance, of congratulations and ultimately, of affection. But why exactly do they feel so great? Aren’t you curious to know just what’s really happening within your brain as you feel accepted or rejected by people close to you? In this article, we will be tackling the neuroscience behind hugs and hopefully you’ll get your answers afterwards.

The Brain Distinguishing Touches

The power of interpersonal touch has been made evident in many different studies through the years, including a 75 year Harvard study. Apparent in the studies is the finding that humans do not treat all kinds of touches equally. This means an athlete hugging an object – a helmet or a ball – in consolation to having lost won’t really feel the same as when he huddles with his other teammates, who share the same sentiments as him.

This is mostly due to the neurotransmitters (NTs) that are being released in the brain during the act of hugging:

  1. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that encourages bonding. It is linked to social adhesion and to the strengthening of trust between two people or among several people hugging.
  2. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that elevates the mood. It decreases anxiety as well as the feeling of loneliness. This is also present in anti-depressants such as SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors.
  3. Dopamine increases the feelings of warmth, pleasure, reward and motivation. It is the central in addiction and it is also what floods through the brain during eating, sex, drug use or anything that is considered pleasurable.

The release of these neurotransmitters is often due to a decrease in the activity of the HPA or Hypothalamus/ Pituitary Gland / Adrenal axis, which is known to:

Human touches are known to decrease, even reverse, all those mentioned above. They can also decrease pain perception and calm fears. Now, it’s not so much of a wonder why teams usually huddle before and after setting out to the field, is it? Even just a simple pat on the back already does so much as to prevent days of depression from a lost game.

The Cortisol

An easy way to measure all this is through the hormone known as Cortisol. This hormone is closely associated with stress and is also one end result of the HPA activation. Many of the studies have shown that there has been a significant decrease in the body’s production of cortisol between people in contact with each other.

Think of that time when you were yet a small kid and were hurt or sick. Just having your mother or father hold you already made you feel so much better, right? Well, that relief we used to get doesn’t really disappear as we grow to become adults. It’s just that we become more guarded and complicated due to the cultures and expectations linked to being an “adult”. Hence, instead of looking for our moms when we become scared, we turn to other people, substances or objects to feel that same sentiment.

So, with all that said, go and throw hugs to all those who you know needs them. Whether it’s to a pet, a troubled friend or a stressed-looking co-worker doesn’t matter. And if they ever suspect your intention, then simply do a lengthy discussion about oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and the cortisol. Before you even finish, they would already have forgotten about their problem and feel laughing at how geeky you are to them.

Written by

Erwin Valencia

Founder & Executive Director

Photo by Helena Lopes


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