Why do we love cuddling so much? It may be because there are some real, and surprising, benefits to getting physically close to someone.
1. Touch stimulates oxytocin, which makes you feel safe.
Oxytocin is often called “the cuddle chemical” or “the love hormone” and it’s useful to know how it works in animals. Oxytocin rewards a gazelle, for example, when it has the safety of a herd, and a baboon when it grooms the fur of a troop mate. Natural selection provided you with a brain that similarly rewards you with the good feeling of oxytocin when you generate social trust.
2. Cuddling helps you sleep like a baby.
Oxytocin is your brain’s signal that it’s safe to let down your guard. Your mammal brain lowers its guard in the safety of a herd, pack, or troop because the burden of vigilance is distributed among many eyes and ears. We also surge with oxytocin during childbirth, which causes attachment between a mother and her young. More oxytocin is stimulated by licking or cuddling, because your brain is designed to accept vulnerability when you enjoy the safety of social bonds.
3. Cuddling expands your ability to trust.
Touch and trust go together in nature because a creature close enough to touch you is close enough to hurt you, and you need to know its intentions. Your brain evolved to promote survival: It remembers everything that has ever hurt you. Trusting everyone would not be good for survival. Instead, experience wires your brain to turn the good feelings on and off. Your neurons connect when oxytocin flows, which sends the signal to turn on your trust in similar circumstances. Cortisol, by contrast, surges when your trust is betrayed, and we're wired to feel threatened in similar circumstances.
You can’t erase old pathways but you can build new ones. New oxytocin experiences signal your brain to turn on good feelings in new circumstances. Cuddling helps to rewrite your history of trust, and to enjoy that nice sense of safety more often.
Read more about your oxytocin circuits in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Endorphin Levels.
This article originally appeared on www.womenworking.com.