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Where, When, And How We Touch Our Faces

The face is rich in nerve endings that are close to neural pathways.

Key points

  • Our faces serve to pacify us when we need an immediate de-stressor.
  • How we touch our faces differs depending on the amount of stress.
  • Look for when we transition from mere touching to scratching of the face.

We touch our faces all day long but not always the same way, nor in the same place. Circumstances dictate where we touch and how we touch. For example, when we are deep in thought or perhaps reading a book, we tend to touch our chin with our index finger and thumb. This touching contributes to that special pensive moment. Touching our face is not required for reading or thinking and yet it is so universally performed and personally satisfying.

Similarly, we touch or massage the temples of our forehead when we have a headache. When we’re bored, we place our cheek on the palm of our warm hand as a viable substitute for a comfortable pillow. When we’re annoyed, we may stroke our nose repeatedly or pull on an earlobe. When lost in thought or pondering a difficult question, we may pluck our philtral columns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philtrum), or lick, pull, or bite our lips. We do these things because in touching these various areas of the face, we receive a momentary decrease in nervous tension, and it helps us to remain calm.

Take for instance a game of basketball when the score is tied, and someone is about to take a foul shot with three seconds remaining in the game. To deal with the mounting tension, fans grab or cover their faces, some pinch their cheeks between their index finger and thumb, others bring both hands to the mouth and nose, massage their temples, on and on. That is how we deal with increased stress. When we engage in this touching, massaging, scratching, and at times grabbing our faces, we release oxytocin and serotonin which serve to calm and soothe us.

In Why We Touch Our Faces So Much, I posited that we likely touch our faces so often (more so than perhaps any other area of the body) because our faces are rich in nerve endings that are so very close (proximal) to the neural pathways that serve to soothe us. The closer a nerve is to our brain, the faster it sends pacifying or calming signals to the brain when touched. As we touch these nerves by stroking the face, touching the face, or even applying pressure on the face, chemicals are released in the brain which help to calm us.

In the article I argued that the Trigeminal Nerve (5th Cranial Nerve) and its three major divisions (ophthalmic, maxillary, mandibular) along with the Facial Nerve (7th Cranial Nerve) provide us with a rich galaxy of nerve endings that we can use in a variety of ways to soothe and comfort ourselves. And while a back or foot massage (once we have outgrown thumb or finger sucking) may reduce stress or tension after a hard day’s work, nothing works quite as well, or is as timely, as facial touching. Although, as with so many things, facial touching comes in many varieties and is at times very nuanced, and this is the focus of this article.

Ever notice that we tend to stroke our faces with a downward motion? According to researcher David J. Linden, a lot of that has to do with the hairs of the face, even the very miniscule ones we don’t see, and the way the nerves are aligned around the hair follicles. It is pleasing and soothing to stroke our beards and cheeks downward, even around the corners of the mouth (commissures) as we attempt to de-stress. How much pressure we apply to that downward stroking depends on circumstances — the greater the stress and anxiety we feel, the greater the pressure we apply. And it is not just the pressure but also for how long? Is it quick like a frantic scratch, or is it one prolonged or repeated process? And of course, does that soft gentle touching turn to scratching, when a particular subject is brought up?

Over the years, while conducting interviews in the FBI, I noticed that a subtle change from facial touching to scratching served to reveal the sudden presence of greater stress when a particular question was asked, or a topic was mentioned. This is very similar to what I see as a teacher— when students get to a difficult question on a test, they will suddenly and vigorously scratch their head. Thus, the tougher the questions, the greater the insecurity, stress, or anxiety, and thus, the greater the need for a more vigorous self-soothing response.

Conclusion

For those of us who study nonverbal communication and body language, how, where, and when we touch our faces matters. Taking context into account, these behaviors can give us useful insights into an individual’s internal state, such as, changing degrees of worry, concern, doubt, insecurities, or stress. The potential benefits to understanding these subtle nonverbal cues means that hopefully we can use them to help recognize when someone may be distressed or in need of support.

Copyright © 2021, Joe Navarro

References

Ferrante, A. 1967. Finger or thumb sucking. New interpretations and therapeutic implications. Minerva Pediatr (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26129804/) 015 Aug 67(4):285-97

Gray, Henry. 2013. Grays Anatomy. London, England: Arcturus Publishing.

Linden, D. J. 2007. The accidental mind: How brain evolution has given us love, memory, dreams, and God. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

Linden, David J. 2015. Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind. New York: Penguin Books

Montegu, Ashley. 1986. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every BODY Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

Navarro, Joe. 2021. Be Exceptional: Master The Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart. New York: Harper Collins.

Navarro, Joe. 1984. Navarro Codex. Unpublished ethological manuscript of field observations.

Zak, Paul J. 2012. The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works. New York: Dutton-Penguin Books.

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