The Science of Love

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Cuddling Is So Important, It May Be Worth Paying For

Innovators are finding new ways to provide this basic human need.

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I’ve been laid up for the past several weeks with a horrible case of pneumonia. My friends, pitying my bedridden state, have brought me all sorts of non-academic reading material to help while away the hours. This weekend I finally reached the last magazine in the stack. And as I was desultorily flipping through the pages, I came across the most interesting little blurb about a new café in Japan where lonely customers starved for human contact can pay for a cuddle.

Called Soineya, this café offers its male (and, presumably, female) clientele “the simple comfort of sleeping with someone.” According to the website, the employees are all attractive, young (under 30) women dressed in somewhat skimpy sleepwear—but that sexual contact is strictly prohibited. You go there to take a nap, and nothing else, though the napping doesn’t come cheap—about $35 to get in the door, and an additional $35 for each 20 minutes of no-contact sleeping. Actual physical contact—sleeping in an employee’s arms, or having her pat you on the back while you doze—runs about $4 a minute, sold in 3-minute chunks. By my calculations, then, a 20-minute cuddle could set me back about $120.

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That’s one expensive hug.

My initial reaction upon reading this brief article was disbelief, quickly followed by pity for those desperate (or wealthy) enough to pay for a cuddle. But later I realized that maybe it’s not so strange, or pathetic. Isn’t it natural to need a cuddle, from time to time? Doesn’t being touched, or being hugged, make us feel good? And am I really so different from those lonely, touch-deprived guys who step into the hug café? After all, when my partner isn’t here, I find it hard to sleep—the bed just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes I even put a pillow up against my back or curl myself around it. I know it’s just a pillow, not the warm body that’s usually lying next to me, but somehow it relaxes my body and brain, and I sleep a bit better. So perhaps it’s not terribly surprising, at a time when we are all increasingly electronically connected and physically disconnected, that hug cafés would take hold.

We all need to be touched.

Science tells us that the need for physical contact is present at birth and is an important part—perhaps the most important part—of our species heritage. British clinician John Bowlby proposed the evolutionary concept of attachment, or the innate need for human beings to form strong affectional bonds with others. According to Bowlby, human infants enter the world predisposed to emotionally “bind” themselves to a mom, dad, or other caregiver (in other words, to form relationships), and this predisposition manifests itself in instinctive behaviors which promote physical proximity (and, consequently, enhance survival). This is why all babies cry, suckle, and cling—these attachment behaviors pull supportive responses from and promote physical closeness with caregivers, which helps babies survive.

Bowlby’s ideas were strongly informed by fellow scientist Harry Harlow’s seminal work on “contact comfort” in baby monkeys. In a series of groundbreaking (and disturbingly sad) experiments, Harlow demonstrated that physical closeness and contact are core components of the parent-child relationship among primates. Scores of baby monkeys were separated at birth from their real mothers and raised alone in cages with an artificial “mom.” Some of the fake moms lactated milk (via bottles) and some did not. Some were covered with soft cloth and some with hard wire. Harlow found that the baby monkeys consistently and inevitably preferred the soft, cloth-covered “mom” over the hard, wire-covered “mom,” even when she provided no milk – and this preference was most marked when the babies were placed in a stressful or strange situation. Harlow concluded that one of the most significant things that parents and other caregivers do for (primate) infants is provide a safe, warm, physically comforting haven from which to deal with life’s vicissitudes.

For obvious ethical reasons, Harlow conducted his studies with monkeys rather than human infants. However, there is growing evidence that we humans also find contact to be reassuring, particularly when we are stressed. Researcher and author Temple Grandin developed the “squeeze machine,” an ingenious device that provides deep touch pressure to the body. Also marketed as a “hug machine,” this device appears to have calming effects on children and adults with autism spectrum disorders. [Other people have developed portable “pressure wraps” to help calm anxiety-prone pets. I am certainly not an expert on these techniques and products—you can learn more here, here, and here. What I can tell you, anecdotally, is that these deep pressure touch wraps do seem to reduce anxiety in highly stressed dogs—a friend’s noise-sensitive Border Collie almost appears to go into a trance when she’s placed in the wrap.]

As I type this, I find myself thinking about all the people (and pets) in my life who touch me—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I am surrounded by friends and family who express their affection physically, who greet me with a hug, who take my hand when I’m afraid, who hold me when I’m sad, who sit next to me at the table, on the couch, or in the movie theater. I have an old dog who lies on my feet when I sit at the computer (it’s like wearing a 50-pound pair of furry boots) and a young dog who body slams me whenever and wherever she can.

I’m fortunate—my days are filled with touch, contact, and opportunities to give and receive physical affection. But that could change. One day I could find myself bereft of the contact I enjoy today. So I say bring on the cuddle cafés. A “real” hug, from someone who knows and cares about us, may be best. But any hug is better than no hug. Even if we have to pay for it.

Pamela Regan, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. She is the author of Close Relationships (Routledge).

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