The science of an embrace: why does hugging feel so good?

    Indian spiritual leader

    Indian spiritual leader

    We sent our least touchy-feely journalist to visit “The Hugging Saint”.

    When Amma comes to town, people line up—and wait four hours—for one of her free hugs.

    The 63 year old, whose name is Mata Amritanandamayi, is also known as Amma (mother) or “The Hugging Saint.” She’s a pied piper of compassion and a rock star of humanitarian work. This month, she’s on a 10-city North American tour that began in Seattle and ends in Toronto. A spokesman says her charity “Embracing the World” doesn’t keep an official count, but in each city Amma will hug thousands of people.

    I caught up with her in New York at a huge convention center in Midtown Manhattan. As her devotees streamed into the hall, and I asked a few of them what a hug from Amma feels like.

    “Like an explosion inside of you,” said Diane, a home caregiver who didn’t want to share her last name.

    Dante Sawyer, who does public relations work for Amma, said it’s hard to experience her embrace without reflecting on your own life: “What am I giving beyond my nuclear family and friends?”

    “You just feel like you’re included that she really wants to spread love and give love to everybody,” said Yvonne Schot Hannan.

    A little more love sounds good, but I am not a hugger.

    I don’t like hugs from strangers, and I even get squirmy when friends try to hug me. For example, every few weeks, my husband and I get dinner with couple friends. The wife and I share the same mix of idealism and snark. Our husbands have a bro-mance built on football, beer and chicken wings.

    At the end of our evenings out together, we chat in the parking lot, and that’s when things get awkward—for me. The three of them say goodbye with quick bear hugs, but I don’t really want to. Of course, I’ve heard that hugs are good for us, and I’m starting think maybe I’m missing out. So I called evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, for advice.

    Dunbar is a professor at Oxford University and studies the complexity of our social lives. Lately he’s been researching and writing about hugs. He says attachment styles—how you relate to other people—vary.

    “From cold reserved folk like us Northern Europeans to sort of warm, all-over-you Mediterranean style,” Dunbar said.

    Dunbar’s team surveyed about 1,300 people from the United Kingdom, Russia, Finland, France and Italy, and they asked what kind of touch feels acceptable from family, friends or a stranger. Turns out that most of those people—like me—prefer a simple handshake when they’re greeting someone for the first time.

    “But what was really surprising was it was the Fins who are the most touchy-feely in Europe,” Dunbar laughs. “Personally, I put it down to the fact that they spend all their time sitting saunas together.”

    Besides the cultural differences, we all have individual tolerance for touch. Physical contact triggers a flood of endorphins and other “happy” chemicals in the brain. Some people get satiated faster, but for other people—who might have more endorphin receptors—it takes a lot more snuggling before they’re satisfied.

    Health researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh asked people about the social support in their lives, and they found that hugs can protect you from stress-induced sickness.

    Dunbar say the endorphin system seems to “tune-up” the immune system.

    “Hugging is probably good for your physical health and, by extension, almost certainly your mental health as well,” he said.

    Researchers have been interested in the power of nonsexual, caring touch for a long time. In the 1990s, scientists examined the behavior and brains of neglected orphans in Romania. But, Robin Dunbar says, even today, one of the most famous studies on touch is a social-isolation experiment from the 1950s.

    The scientists studied a bunch of adorable, scampering, big-eared rhesus monkeys. The babies were “raised” by inanimate wire “mothers” who offered them milk but no comforting touch. The researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison documented their pioneering work and you can see the film on YouTube.

    The monkeys that got to rub-up against a surrogate wire mother wrapped in terry cloth developed the skills they needed be become effective adults. The babies raised by a wire mother never learned those skills, and in those deprived monkeys, a lack of comfort caused physical problems including chronic diarrhea and trouble digesting milk.

    “There are a lot of things that people can live through,” said New York therapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel. “Not having any touch or affection is really damaging.”

    A few years ago she started using touch in her work with clients. When a patient is struggling with grief or psychological pain, a hand on the shoulder or a hug can help, she said.

    “It feels like the most underutilized, free resource there is,” she said.

    Primates groom each other to create social bonds, and when humans touch there’s a drop in the stress hormone cortisol as well as a rush of another hormone that’s like the glue for friendship. Jacobs Hendel says touch is calming, a way to regulate the nervous system. Light pressure on the skin sends signals to the vagus nerve, which in turn slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.

    “It’s medicinal, but not for everybody, though,” Jacobs Hendel concedes. “I always ask permission before we do things like this…and if they say no, we don’t do it.”

    If a client was sexually abused, touch can be taken the wrong way and inexperienced therapists have to make sure physical affection doesn’t turn sexual.

    She was trained as a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition, where any touch between therapist and patient is taboo. So, Jacobs Hendel says she understands the hesitation to hug (or be hugged) in a therapeutic setting.

    “If someone’s not a hugger, that’s fine, and I would never judge that, but I would get curious,” she said. “I think we are born being huggers, it’s just wired in.”

    And that’s what brought me to New York to see Amma—a short, stout, smiling lady who’s hugged millions of people over the years. Thirty years ago, she gave out hugs in people’s living rooms, but today at an Amma event you can buy T-shirts, Indian food, traditional clothes, or jewelry, and her organization rents out convention centers to hold the crowd.

    Esther Seznie, a platinum blonde with a pixie cut and bright-pink lipstick, came all the way from Santa Monica, California to hug Amma.

    The first time she got an embrace, Seznie says Amma whispered, “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,’ in her ear, and gave her a mantra to live by.

    Amma has diamond nose stud and touch of grey at her temples. In New York she wore all white and a dab of yellow and red paint on her forehead. Before she entered the hall, her entourage laid down a maroon carpet, and she walked in to the sound of a conch horn and tinkling bells.

    To keep the process orderly, everyone gets a number before hugging Amma, kind of like taking your turn in the deli line.

    In a raspy voice—using her native Malayalam language—Amma speaks about compassion for a bit and says spirituality “is a science that teaches us to take what comes our way,” according to the translator.

    Then there’s chanting, music.

    I stand in line for 45 minutes to buy Masala dosa—a potato filled Indian crepe—and then about three hours later, it’s finally my turn.

    Amma is seated on the stage, surrounded by cushions, and her handlers ask me to approach on my knees. I shuffle forward; she smiles and gathers me in. Then hugs me even closer. She’s warm and solid—and she does smell good.

    One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi—then another 15 seconds later, Amma says something in my ear that sounds like “siri, siri, siri.” I get one more quick squeeze, and she lets me go.

    For me, it’s not life changing, but it’s a very long hug, and that might explain all the smiley happy faces in the convention center as well as the devotion of the people who follow her around the world.

    Scientists say the hugs we give to an acquaintance or new friend last about 3 seconds, but hugging for 20 seconds, like I did with Amma, sends out a surge of the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin, and that creates intimacy, trust and connection.

    I’m pretty sure you can’t get that from my greeting of choice…a handshake.

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