Touch is a remarkable sense. It is the first to develop in the womb. We experience it through our skin, the largest and heaviest organ of our bodies. And while scientists may not be able to tell us how and why, we all know that touch has an emotional effect. Just think of a reassuring hug or loving caress.
So can we pin down the link between touch and emotion? Is it possible to identify what sort of touch generates a particular type of emotion?
Recently researchers – including a group at Philips Research – have started exploring questions like these. They believe the answers could help enhance our health and well-being, as well as enable richer sensory experiences.
Understanding the power of touch
To help expand knowledge in this little-explored area, the researchers at Philips have created an “emotions jacket” as a platform to study the link further. The jacket draws on Philips’ know-how in human perceptions and behavior, as well as its expertise in sensor and actuator technologies.
Down the jacket’s sleeves and across the torso are 64 evenly-spaced actuators, based on the vibrating motors used in mobile phones. These actuators produce the sensation of being touched. For example, eight of them in the sleeve can create the feeling of being tapped on the arm or touched in several spots.
A shiver of fear or a reassuring touch
Initially, Philips is exploring how to generate more immersive cinematic experiences. You see the heroine in the movie creeping downstairs because she’s heard a mysterious noise. The jacket creates a tingle down your spine and you experience that moment of anxiety – just as if you were going down those steps too.
But Philips’ interest goes much wider – into ways in which touch can increase our well-being. “We want to distinguish which stimuli produce a specific emotional effect, so we can unobtrusively help people achieve their desired mood. It could be the thrills of an adventure movie, but also better sleep, greater productivity at work, or deeply calming meditation at home,” says Paul Lemmens of Philips Research.