- Pacifying through self-touch begins in the womb.
- The brain requires us to self-soothe—for example, to relieve boredom, channel restless energy, or release anxiety.
- To self-soothe, humans often touch their faces because its nerve endings are extremely sensitive and close to the brain.
Ever wonder why we strum our fingers or tap our feet while waiting to be served at the counter? Why babies, when startled from sleep, reach out with fingers spread? Or why, when we hear a loud noise, we freeze in place? Ever notice why people pluck their upper lip or twirl their hair as they read a book? Why do we do these things?
The need for self-soothing
Consider these: We strum our fingers and tap our feet because repetitive behaviors soothe us. That startled baby for the first six months of life reaches out with fingers spread out (Moro reflex) because for millions of years our mothers had a lot more hair and babies needed to hang on (grasping reflex) if the mother suddenly moved.
We freeze in place when we hear a noise or we sense something is wrong (the deer caught in the headlights moment) because of predators—principally large felines. See a lion, hold still, for if you run, it will initiate the chase, trip, bite, sequence that all felines employ to kill—and you don’t get to pass on your DNA at the end of the day if you are dead. So, we learned to hold very still as a quick response (more properly called the fight, flight, or freeze response).
Women twirl their hair and men stroke their beards because it feels good, it contributes to psychological comfort as does most of the touching we do all day long. Do it right and that touch releases oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin—chemicals that help us to deal with stress, calm us down, and leave us in a good mood.
From the time we are in the womb, we spend a lot of time self-soothing, be it with a thumb in our mouths to later holding on to a favorite teddy bear or blanket to wringing our hands as we wait for the test scores to be announced. Self-touching, or self-pacifying, is something we do so long as we are alive because our brain requires it.
Our hands are kept busy all day long, scratching this, rubbing that, massaging here and there. We do it to relieve boredom, to channel restless energy, in anticipation of news, when struggling to verbalize or organize thoughts, as we encounter something stressful, or to relieve the anxiety of a less than pleasant encounter. The brain does not do it by wishing it so; it requires us to use our bodies, principally our hands, to relieve that stress. And of all the surface areas of the body, no part of our body gets as much attention when it comes to touching as the face.
How touching the face can be self-soothing
Like me, I am sure you have seen everything from the touching of the chin as a question is pondered, to the tapping of pursed lips with an index finger or a pencil, to the pulling or plucking of the lips. Likewise, scratching, massaging, or squeezing of the cheeks or temples gets our attention as does touching the tip of the nose, rubbing their eyelids, or simultaneously stroking the corners of the mouth (commissures).
Nowhere else on our body do we touch ourselves with such variety or frequency—sometimes multiple times a minute. If you want to test this, invite a group of friends to watch a horror movie and you will notice how much face touching takes place. I touch my face repeatedly while watching the movie Jaws, Alien, It, The Shining, or Get Out even though I have seen them before.
Why do we touch our faces so much? It is a matter of economic efficiency. The body has many nerve endings which are useful for self-soothing, including those in our fingertips which can delicately and precisely feel. But, when it comes to pacifying the brain immediately, any old nerve or group of nerves simply will not do.
For expediency and economy, even when mildly stressed, and to get the quickest relief, the nerves we stimulate must be extremely sensitive and close to the brain so that the signals arrive quickly and robustly. Fortunately, our faces are amply innervated with nerves that can do just that. Gently touch your lower lip and that signal gets to the brain quickly, as does a gentle kiss to a closed eye—both sensations have a calming effect on us. This occurs and is easily explained because of the fifth (Trigeminal) and the seventh cranial nerve (also known as the facial nerve) which infuse the face with a rich galaxy of locations that are sensitive to the slightest touch and which reliably comfort us.
And while a shoulder or foot massage can be very pleasing, day-to-day it just is not the same; it is not practical nor economically efficient enough to meet our instant needs. We favor the face parsimoniously when it comes to self-soothing because the face rewards us back consistently, calming our brain, returning us to a state of homeostasis.
So, the next time you see someone touch the very tip of their nose when asked a delicate question, congratulate yourself knowing that they are stimulating the most distal part of the fifth cranial nerve—that focused touch of the nose helping to relieve momentary stress through a proven short vector that is robust and effective. And that’s why.
Copyright © 2021, Joe Navarro.
Facebook image: Space_Cat/Shutterstock
Fisher, Helen. 2004. Why we love: the nature and chemistry of love. New York: Henry Holt.
Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893–910. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.523
Navarro, Joe. 2021. Be Exceptional: Master The Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart. New York: Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2018. The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. New York : Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. El Cuerpo Habla. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Sirio.
Navarro, Joe. 2019. “Reserved Behaviors of the Hands.” Psychology Today Blog. June 24.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every BODY Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Zack, Paul J. 2012. The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works. New York: Penguin Group.