Over the years I have written about the variety of ways we touch our faces to self-soothe or to pacify our anxieties. We touch, caress, stroke, scratch, rub, pull, pluck, indent, press, squeeze, and do many other things to our own faces. No other area of the body gets this much varied attention on any given day. Consider the lips alone: We lick them, compress them, caress them with pencils or fingers, tap them, pull on them, or even make nonsensical vibrating noises with them, and, yes kiss with them. We do these things all for the sake of attending to our brain’s need to remain calm and in a healthy state of equilibrium, or to enhance a moment (romantic or otherwise). Once we outgrow the thumb-sucking stage as toddlers, the face is our go-to medium for pacifying.
I postulated before that we touch our faces so much because the fifth cranial nerve (a.k.a., CN-V, trigeminal) infuses our face (forehead, cheeks, nose, eyes, jaw, chin) with so many rich and sensitive nerve endings that are so easily accessible. Hence, from a behavioral economics perspective, touching our faces to pacify ourselves, comparative to any other part of the body, makes the most parsimonious sense. In other words, the fifth cranial nerve is the most perfectly suited to assist in pacifying us quickly and efficiently because it is robust, broad in scope, and is very close in relative terms to the pons, near the crucial top of the brain stem where signals from touching are received and immediately distributed to facilitate the release of neurochemicals if needed, such as oxytocin.
Different Ways of Touching
This helps us to understand why we touch our face so much—but it doesn’t explain why we touch our faces differently each time. You have probably never thought of how you touch your face or when, but, as it turns out, how we do so is based on what the brain needs. When you feel an itch on your cheek, you scratch it. Simple enough, right? As it turns out, that itch, for whatever reason, subconsciously compels you to act. To alleviate the itch, it is not good enough for you to just touch the area, press on it, pull on it, rub it, or massage it. If it itches, the brain senses it as important (perhaps it’s an insect, maybe a skin condition—the brain does not care, especially while asleep) and so it says activate the best response that will attenuate that itch, and for that only scratching will do—and if you have long nails, all the better.
Thus, depending on our mood, emotional state, or level of stress, as well as need, the brain chooses the adequate arsenal to deploy. Ever notice how, when we are thinking, we tend to touch our chin very lightly with our index finger and thumb? These digits, richly innervated with a variety of nerves for precise grasping and feeling, allow us to contribute to the process of thinking, perhaps even helping us to relax, through the touch of the chin. Try touching your chin while relaxed with just the tip of your pinky; notice the difference? It is not the same. The brain prefers the touch of the broader fingertips—in particular the index finger and the thumb—when we are contemplating something or just being pensive.
Alternatively, let’s imagine you are now confronted with a difficult situation, perhaps a sudden conflict in your schedule, or you are frustrated, and you find yourself not touching your skin as before but rather vigorously scratching at your cheek as you ponder how to reconcile the conflict. Why the change in how we touch? Because the brain assesses circumstances and deploys a more robust action to deal with the sudden increase in stress. The greater the stress, the more vigorous, dynamic, and tactile the touching becomes. Everything from pulling on our own flesh, to plucking at the lips, to squeezing our cheeks tightly, to down-swiping the corners of the mouth all the way to the chin (peri-oral pacifying) are all available to the brain from this diversified pallet of pacifying resources.
Different Types of Nerves
To understand why this is so, we have to meet the Merkels, the Meissners, the Ruffinis, and the Pacinians, a family of nerves that underlie the skin of our fingers and face; each provides different sensations to the brain. For instance, Meissner's corpuscles are highly sensitive to the slightest touch and quickly recognize changes in texture. The Pacinian corpuscles are receptive to transient changes in touch or pressure and vibrations. The Merkel nerve endings can discriminate between different textures and objects, while the Ruffini corpuscles are sensitive to slower, more-nuanced touch—especially of pressure and stretching and where exactly the change in pressure is taking place.
These different nerves are not just specialized; they are in different concentrations, and some are so sensitive they can sense when a single hair is touched, while others respond more so to blunt pressure. For instance, signals from Meissner’s and Pacinian corpuscles send brief electrical signals to the brain to let it know something has been touched; meanwhile, signals from Ruffini nerve endings and Merkel cells persistently send signals throughout the touching experience. If you were touching something for detail, such as if you were reading the raised dots of Braille on a page, it would be the Merkel cells that would communicate the information most accurately, as they are highly centralized in the fingertips and can differentiate in ways the other nerve endings cannot. So, if you should find yourself wondering why someone is suddenly touching their face this way and that way, or why while trying to remember your new credit card PIN you found yourself frantically plucking your philtrum (the vertically folded skin just above your lip), it’s a reminder that the brain needs what it needs—just in time and not always the same—to deal with the stresses of everyday life. It also reminds us, as it turns out, that how we touch ourselves and when we touch ourselves can reveal a lot about what is going on in the mind.
References Buijs, R. M., De Vries, G. J., Van Leeuwen, F. W., and Swaab, D. F. (1983). Vasopressin and oxytocin: distribution and putative functions in the brain. Prog Brain Res. 60, 115–122.
Dutton, Jonathan J. (2011) Atlas of Clinical and Surgical Orbital Anatomy. Elsevier Inc. p51–82.
Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., and Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biol Psychiatry 54, 1389–1398.
Ikeda, Ryo, et. al. 2014. Merkel cells transduce and encode tactile stimuli to drive Aβ-afferent impulses. Cell, 2014 Apr 24, Volume 157, Issue 3, p.664–675.
Linden, D. J. 2015. Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind. New York: Viking Montagu, Ashley. 1986. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Napier, J. R. (1965). Evolution of the Human Hand. Proceedings Royal Institute of Great Britain, Volume 40, p.544–557.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every BODY Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Porges, S. W. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: physiological basis, quantitative methods, and clinical implications. In: Grossman P, Janssen K, Vaitl D, editors. Cardiorespiratory and Cardiosomatic Psychophysiology. Plenum; New York, NY: 1986. pp. 101–115.
Porges, S. W. The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. Int J Psychophysiol. 2001;42:123–146.
Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2003). The Oxytocin Factor. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Arn, I., and Magnusson, D. (2005). The psychobiology of emotion: the role of the oxytocinergic system. International Journal of Behaviour Med. 12, 59–65.