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Darlene Forde's picture

Hug me healthy . . . . hug me happy?

Steph’s response reminds me of an article I read in Prevention Magazine a few weeks ago, entitled “How Love Keeps You Healthy”. In the article, the author Sarah Mahoney compares the findings of several studies in an effort to understand the key features associated with love that have such a beneficial effect on the body. For example, in one study women in “good marriages” were found to have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, when compared to women who were in high-stress relationships. Similarly, ovarian cancer patients who were in “satisfying relationships” demonstrated higher levels of “desirable white blood cells” which are effective at destroying cancerous cells.

One of the main findings explored by Mahoney is that bonding and cohesion play an important role in both health and happiness. Bonding—or a “sense of being united” as Mahoney describes it—appears to help lower blood pressure. It also appears to be more effective than sex alone in fostering feelings of happiness and health. Mahoney also explores the findings of a few studies which examine the impacts of bear hugs on the nervous system. Researchers at UNC found that frequently daily hugging after a brief period of conversation “dramatically lower blood pressure and boost blood levels of oxytocin, a relaxing hormone that plays a key role in labor, breastfeeding, and orgasms.”

Oxytocin is a neurohormone, meaning that it is a hormone which also acts as a neurotransmitter. In the brain oxytocin is associated with feelings of bonding, stress-reduction, increased tolerance to pain, and sexual arousal. Both sexes release the hormone during orgasm.

I think it is important to stop here and reflect on the bonding in terms of the nervous system. What does our nervous system interpret as being connected? What exactly is a “sense of being united”? Is it a symphony of sensory neurons firing or motor neurons firing? Why does hugging trigger to elicit the release and/or production of oxytocin? Why was talking before hugging more effective fostering a sense of unity? Is the nervous system able to interpret the pattern more easily when that aspect is also present?

When Prof. Grobstein reached for the thermos on the lecturn on Thursday with his eyes closed, we speculated that this was a result of a Central Pattern Generator/Identifier. Is the nervous system programmed to associate talking and hugging to create a wider sense of identity and togetherness?

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