Interpersonal Touch Enhances Cognitive Control: A Neurophysiological Investigation

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Abstract

Touch is central to mammalian communication, socialization, and wellbeing. Despite this prominence, interpersonal touch is relatively understudied. In this preregistered investigation, we assessed the influence of interpersonal touch on the subjective, neural, and behavioral correlates of cognitive control. Forty-five romantic couples were recruited (N = 90; dating >6 months), and one partner performed an inhibitory control task while electroencephalography was recorded to assess neural performance monitoring. Interpersonal touch was provided by the second partner and was manipulated between experimental blocks. A within-subject repeated-measures design was used to maximize statistical power, with our sample size providing 80% power for even small effect sizes (ds > .25). Results indicated that participants were not only happier when receiving touch, but also showed increased neural processing of mistakes. Further exploratory cognitive modeling using indirect effects tests and drift diffusion models of decision making revealed that touch was indirectly associated with both improved inhibitory control and increased rates of evidence accumulation (drift rate) through its influence on neural monitoring. Thus, beyond regulating emotion and stress, interpersonal touch appears to enhance the neurocognitive processes underling flexible goal-directed behavior.

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