Have you ever had someone comment on how soft your skin is — and you assume they're crazy because you know you forgot to put lotion on that morning? It turns out that even if you don't think your skin is deserving of compliments, it is to others. They literally see — or rather, feel — a softer version of you, according to a September 2015 study published in Current Biology.
Researchers are dubbing this phenomenon the "Social Softness Illusion." That may sound like the name of a bizarre magic trick, but it actually explains a lot about how powerful of a role touch plays in human life.
Researchers divided more than 130 people into pairs and asked them to "perform gentle stroking movements on each other's skin" (yes, we giggled too, but let's move on) and then compare that to how their own skin felt. The study participants consistently thought their partners' forearms were softer than their own, but not when they compared the softness of each other's palms.
The researchers think they know why: Previous studies have shown that humans have a certain class of nerves (known as the C tactile afferents) that might actually be "specifically tuned" to enjoy caresses from others. But these nerves only exist on body parts with hair follicles (like forearms), not on hairless parts (like palms), which might be why we enjoy certain types of touch more than others.
And that's where the social sensory illusion comes into play: Thinking someone feels softer promotes bonding and makes us want to touch them, which suggests the nerve "tuning" goes both ways. Not only do we enjoy receiving caresses where those nerves are, we enjoy giving caresses there, too.
This might explain why the movie-and-a-cuddle experience is so popular with couples. When a person you enjoy rubs your arm or touches your face when they kiss you, it makes them (and you) feel a stronger connection. It makes sense for platonic relationships, too: If you're having a bad day and someone consoles you with a touch to the arm or a hug, that can strengthen your bond, as well.
So there might be some (unintentional) scientific reasoning behind the cheesy yawn-and-put-arm-around-date maneuver that's so popular at the movies, because something as simple as some innocent (hairy) skin-on-skin action could be all that's needed to create a bond that lasts forever... or at least until the popcorn runs out.