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Embracing someone, especially when negative emotions cloud the mind, can be very helpful. It is an act of showing affection that often applies to family, friends, and romantic relationships. Researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany determine which side people tend to lean on when hugging and what it means.
People commonly share a hug in situations infused with intense emotions, such as anger, hurt, and joy. But the curious thing about an embrace is why people tend to hug from the left side, rather than in neutral position. Ruhr-Universität Bochum members Julian Packheiser, Noemi Rook, and Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg evaluated more than 2,500 hugs to figure it out.
The first scenario analyzed is the goodbye and aviophobia or fear of flying. At a German airport, the researchers studied about 1,000 embraces in the departure terminal and another 1,000 in the arrival terminal. According to the researchers, people usually embrace during departure as a sign of negative emotion, such as saying goodbye to the person they care about. An embrace may also be done by the traveler as a comfort for aviophobia, as studies suggest that 40 percent of air travelers suffer from fear of flight. On the other hand, embraces in the arrival terminal have shown positive emotions reflected by happy reunions between partners or among family members, and the relief of fearful flyers that the travel is over.
When a person hugs someone, a neurotransmitter called oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. The production of oxytocin is triggered by a positive feedback mechanism. Oxytocin regulates social interaction, maternal-infant bonding, and reproduction. The neurotransmitter is often referred to as the “love hormone” because its level increases when hugging or kissing. The hormone has a major role in certain important parts of human lives, such as pair bonding, trust, and a cure for depressive feelings.
After embraces at the airport, the research team analyzed a different situation – embracing strangers in the street. The team used the YouTube platform to study the neutral embraces. They found several clips of actors offering blindfolded embraces to strangers. About 500 hugs were studied by the researchers.
Although hugging a stranger is in itself, weird, the action still provides the natural healing effects of embrace. A simple embrace can trigger the production of serotonin on top of oxytocin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects several processes in the brain, such as mood, emotions, anxiety and depression, memory, perception, and sleeping pattern. The neurotransmitter is involved in muscle cells, certain parts of the cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and more than 40 million nerve cells. When hugged even by a stranger, a temporary boost of serotonin can lift someone’s mood, alleviate the feelings of anxiety or depression, and relax a stressed mind.
Consistent with previous studies, the research team determined that most people display preferences on right-sided hugs, while left-sided hugs happen more commonly in both positive and negative scenarios.
“This is because of the influence of the right hemisphere, which controls the left side of the body and processes both positive and negative emotions. When people hug, emotional and motor networks in the brain interact and cause a stronger drift to the left in emotional contexts,” said Julian Packheiser, the lead author of the study.
To further investigate, the team decided to analyze the influence of handedness and footedness in embraces. About 120 participants were enrolled and asked to embrace a mannequin after listening to various positive, negative, and neutral short stories using headphones. The findings revealed that people who are right-handed tend to hug other people from the right side, while left-handed people to the same, but less often than right-handed individuals.
As an outlier, the research team also investigated an embrace between two men. They observed a dominant left-hand drift in such embrace, even if the scenario is neutral in context.
“Our interpretation is that many men consider embraces between men to be something negative; therefore, they tend to perceive hugs as negative even in a neutral situation, such as saying hello,” said Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg, an assistant professor at RUB.
Regardless of how people observe embraces, the physiological and mental health benefits of hugs cannot be denied. Below are some of the positive benefits when receiving a simple, warm embrace:
- It relaxes and loosens the tensions of the muscles. When feeling angry or agitated, many people are receptive from embraces.
- It lowers the risk of developing heart diseases.
- It boosts and strengthens the immune system.
- It reduces stress and feelings of worry.
- It helps fight off symptoms of tiredness and weakness.
"We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth," said Virginia Satir, a psychotherapist known for pioneering work in family reconstruction therapy.
[메디컬리포트=Ralph Chen 기자]