*First author is Emily Silver
Cuddling with mom. Wrestling with dad. Hugging family members. We may not fully understand the power of loving touch and rough-and-tumble play for our development, but neuroscience is showing their power on our bodies and brains.
Loving touch and rough-and-tumble play release a special little neuropeptide called oxytocin.1 We liked to be touched, because it makes us feel good. And that’s the result of oxytocin at work. When you are wrapped in a cozy bear hug, your brain gets excited and sends out a little oxytocin, making it so comfortable. This happy hormone has other jobs too, though. And it can help a child grow up to be kind and compassionate.
What happens if you grow up without loving touch? Your body doesn't know what to do with a hug or a cuddle. This is what happened to a large group of kids in Romania in the nineties.2 They grew up in crowded orphanages. No one bonded with them, cuddled or hugged them. And there were no laps to sit on. Imagine spending hours alone in a crib, staring at a wall. That’s what happened to many Romanian orphans. And this treatment left its mark.
The Romanian kids grew up and had a whole host of problems. Even after being adopted by supportive, loving families, they still struggled. Many children never really figured out how to receive or return the love of their new families. Some kids would just rock back and forth to comfort themselves, unable to connect. It turns out that it’s pretty hard for your body to understand affection if you have been isolated from it in those critical early years.
In the case of the orphanage kids, oxytocin just might have had a little something to do with their problems. Usually when kids sit in their moms' laps, their brains send out a big burst of oxytocin. They feel safe and happy. But for the orphans, this oxytocin burst didn’t happen, even when they got to cuddle with their adoptive moms.4 Not enough of the love hormone flowing means there are no cozy feelings from hugs. And it means that socializing is more difficult too.
Genes can also play a role in how our body produces oxytocin. Some researchers have found special oxytocin genes.3 Kids with one version of the gene seemed to have an extra helping of empathic feeling. Those kids with the other version of the gene were a little more stress-reactive when they found themselves in sticky situations. It looks like oxytocin genetics might have something to do with these different forms of response.
So you may be asking yourself what this means for you. Hugs! Affectionate touch among couples is related to better health and well-being. Hugs are healthy! Partner hugs lower blood pressure and heart rate.
How about for children? Luckily, there are a bunch of different ways to get the oxytocin pumping in your child! It’s easy to shower your little one with love. A long hug or cuddle several times a day will be calming. Rough-and-tumble social play, like tag and wrestling, also boosts oxytocin. Running around on the playground with friends is fun, but also has benefits for mental (and physical) health. And, as an added bonus, adults can get the same benefits from playing like this too!4 A little oxytocin can go a long way.
*Emily Silver is an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame
1 Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 380-391.
2 Hamilton, Jon. "Orphans' Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child's Brain." NPR. NPR, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.
3 Rodrigues SM, Saslow LR, Garcia N, John OP, Keltner D. 2009 Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 21 437 – 21 441. (doi:10. 1073/pnas.0909579106)
4 Wismer Fries, A. B., Ziegler, T. E., Kurian, J. R., Jacoris, S. & Pollak, S. D. (2005) Early experience in humans is associated with changes in neuropeptides critical for regulating social behavior. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102, 17237–17240.