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Touching moments: desire modulates the neural anticipation of active romantic caress

DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00060

Keywords: affective touch, social touch, active touch, desire, reward anticipation, posterior insula, fMRI, affilliative behavior

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A romantic caress is a basic expression of affiliative behavior and a primary reinforcer. Given its inherent affective valence, its performance also would imply the prediction of reward values. For example, touching a person for whom one has strong passionate feelings likely is motivated by a strong desire for physical contact and associated with the anticipation of hedonic experiences. The present study aims at investigating how the anticipatory neural processes of active romantic caress are modulated by the intensity of the desire for affective contact as reflected by passionate feelings for the other. Functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning was performed in romantically involved partners using a paradigm that allowed to isolate the specific anticipatory representations of active romantic caress, compared with control caress, while testing for the relationship between neural activity and measures of feelings of passionate love for the other. The results demonstrated that right posterior insula activity in anticipation of romantic caress significantly co-varied with the intensity of desire for union with the other. This effect was independent of the sensory-affective properties of the performed touch, like its pleasantness. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis showed that the same posterior insula cluster interacted with brain regions related to sensory-motor functions as well as to the processing and anticipation of reward. The findings provide insight on the neural substrate mediating between the desire for and the performance of romantic caress. In particular, we propose that anticipatory activity patterns in posterior insula may modulate subsequent sensory-affective processing of skin-to-skin contact.


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