What is the scientific value of a hug?

UW–Madison expert, professor and researcher Dr. Paula Niedenthal breaks down the emotions behind physical embrace.
illustration of people hugging each other
Graphic by Sam Jones

More than 60% of Dane County residents are now vaccinated, meaning many of us are able to be reunited with loved ones for the first time in a very, very long time. As we now embrace one another without the barrier of masks, plexiglass or six feet, there is a very specific feeling we experience in addition to another human’s body. Romantic folks may call it love, cynics may call it dependence, but the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Dr. Paula Niedenthal calls it science.

Niedenthal studies all things emotions, and leads the Niedenthal Emotions Lab within the Department of Psychology. In addition to her work as a professor, extensive research, authorship commitments and more, Niedenthal also occasionally humors very curious magazine interns. While this is not her area of research, per se, she did co-write the textbook, “Psychology of Emotion,” and was president of the Society for Affective Science. We asked this emotion expert questions about the impact of COVID-19 quarantines on our health, the power of touch, and most importantly, what is the scientific value of a hug?

Dr. Paula Niedenthal

Dr. Paula Niedenthal

What impact does loneliness have on our well-being?
Niedenthal: Humans have evolved to live in groups … We need each other to survive. The presence of others is noted by our brains. Being surrounded by close others is very powerful and positive as a general rule. Many studies demonstrate that lack of social connection is associated with lower physical and mental health. For example, social isolation in rural areas is associated with opioid overdose, alcohol abuse and depression.

How did COVID-19 potentially exacerbate those impacts?
Niedenthal: COVID-19 was associated with a decrease in social contact, and increases in drug and alcohol abuse were one consequence of this limited contact. Studies show individual differences in who suffered the most from the increases in social isolation, however. Actually, some studies indicated that extraverts were good at using other means of making social connection, but still others suggested that extraverts suffered particularly high levels of stress during the pandemic. I think time will tell who suffered most and in what ways. But certainly overall we saw lower levels of well-being during the pandemic. I’ve lived in a number of places, including in Europe. Here in Wisconsin, at least in my social environment, people tend to hug when they say hello and goodbye at a dinner or other social function. Not doing this has been very hard, at least on me.

If possible, can you explain what is scientifically happening when we are reunited with someone we haven’t seen in a long time?
Niedenthal: There are a number of potential benefits when people reunite with loved ones in particular. Some of them are what I referred to before: We remake important social connections and receive benefits from touching people again. We receive physical benefits from the touching and hugging that occurs, but also from the feelings of familiarity and the neurochemistry that accompanies being with people we are attached to. Also, because we are in a social situation, reuniting with familiar others causes a collective arousal of positive emotions, sometimes called emotional contagion.

Biologically speaking, how does physical touch with another human being impact our well-being and emotions?
Niedenthal: For most people hugging is a powerful stimulus. When people hug their brains can be involved in processes that bolster health instead of using its resources to detect and deal with threats. Part of this is because hugging is warm. When we are hugging our brains don’t have to worry so much about conserving core body temperature. Basically instead of dealing with danger our brains can be busy with growing and maintaining physical and mental health. When you are alone your brain has to be on overdrive with worry about threats and a hug is reassurance that the brain can do better stuff.

Harry Harlow, who studied attachment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated in his very controversial studies using rhesus macaques that touch is necessary for normal and healthy infant development. We know much more about that now. Touch is associated with the production of hormones that are absolutely essential for growth and for the establishment of healthy emotional attachment.

So, in simple terms, what is the true, biological benefit of a hug?
Niedenthal: Hugs are unambiguous and immediate signals that we are safe and not alone. The brain understands the hug as meaning it doesn’t have to work on overdrive to avoid threats and exhaust itself and the body with the work of surviving in isolation.

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