The rewarding sensation of touch in affiliative interactions is hypothesized to be underpinned by a specialized system of nerve fibers called C-Tactile afferents (CTs), which respond optimally to slowly moving, gentle touch, typical of a caress. However, empirical evidence to support the theory that CTs encode socially relevant, rewarding tactile information in humans is currently limited. While in healthy participants, touch applied at CT optimal velocities (1-10cm/sec) is reliably rated as subjectively pleasant, neuronopathy patients lacking large myelinated afferents, but with intact C-fibres, report that the conscious sensation elicited by stimulation of CTs is rather vague. Given this weak perceptual impact the value of self-report measures for assessing the specific affective value of CT activating touch appears limited. Therefore, we combined subjective ratings of touch pleasantness with implicit measures of affective state (facial electromyography) and autonomic arousal (heart rate) to determine whether CT activation carries a positive affective value. We recorded the activity of two key emotion-relevant facial muscle sites (zygomaticus major- smile muscle, positive affect & corrugator supercilii-frown muscle, negative affect) while participants evaluated the pleasantness of experimenter administered stroking touch, delivered using a soft brush, at two velocities (CT optimal 3cm/sec & CT non-optimal 30cm/sec), on two skin sites (CT innervated forearm & non-CT innervated palm). On both sites, 3cm/ sec stroking touch was rated as more pleasant and produced greater heart rate deceleration than 30cm/sec stimulation. However, neither self-report ratings nor heart rate responses discriminated stimulation on the CT innervated arm from stroking of the non-CT innervated palm. In contrast, significantly greater activation of the zygomaticus major (smiling muscle) was seen specifically to CT optimal, 3cm/sec, stroking on the forearm in comparison to all other stimuli. These results offer the first empirical evidence in humans that tactile stimulation that optimally activates CTs carries a positive affective valence that can be measured implicitly.
Pawling, R., Cannon, P. R., McGlone, F. P., & Walker, S. C. (2017). C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value. PLoS ONE, 12(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173457