Proven by science: Why your grandchild's cheek is so irresistible

There are few things more lovely that stoking our grandchildren’s hair or having our partner stroke our hand; they always feel so beautifully soft. You can practically feel yourself releasing endorphins that make you feel calm and happy.

New research published in Current Biology says that this experience may be an illusion.

Researcher Aikaterini Fotopoulou of the University College London, got study participants to rate the skin softness of other people, and then say whether or not it felt softer. The people in the study group consistently reported that the skin of other people felt softer than their own. The research team think that this phenomenon may exist to ensure that humans are motivated to build social bonds through touching each other.

“What is intriguing about the illusion is its specificity,” says Antje Gentsch, also of the University College London. “We found the illusion to be strongest when the stroking was applied intentionally.”

Gentsch explains, “In other words, this ‘social softness illusion’ is in the mind of the touch-giver and is selective to the body parts and the stroking speeds that are most likely to elicit pleasure in the receiver. We know the touch of someone we love feels lovely but until now we didn’t know why. It’s designed to make us want to touch the people we love and that builds strong social bonds. May be we are more like our pets than we ever imagined!

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The illusion reveals a largely automatic and unconscious mechanism which means that for us humans giving pleasure is receiving pleasure. Social touch plays a powerful role in human life, from infancy to old age, with beneficial effects on physical and mental health. This “illusion” that loved ones are softer ensures that reaching out and touching another person comes as its own reward.

Touching is a kind of “social glue,” bonding people to each other. For example, touching a baby in a gentle manner seems to give the mother tactile pleasure, the researchers say, over and above any other thoughts or feelings the mother may have in the moment.

So there you have it, scientific proof of what we have always known. Our family and friends feel better to touch and be touched by than anyone else. It would be interesting to know it our pets feel softer to us than other peoples animals? Our guess is they probably do!

How would you describe the touch of your grandchildren or a loved one?