Getting in touch: A neural model of comforting touch

S. G. Shamay-Tsoory, N. I. Eisenberger

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Comforting touch involves contact distress-alleviating behaviors of an observer towards the suffering of a target. A growing number of studies have investigated the effects of touch on pain attenuation, focusing on the (toucher), the target (comforted) or both. Here we synthesize findings of brain mechanisms underlying comforting touch in the target and toucher to propose an integrative brain model for understanding how touch attenuates distress. Building on evidence from the pain and distress literatures, our model applies interchangeably to pain and distress regulation. We describe comforting touch as a feedback-loop that begins with distress experienced by the target, triggering an empathic response in the toucher which in turn reduces distress in the target. This cycle is mediated by interactions between the neural circuits associated with touch perception, shared distress, emotion regulation and reward as well as brain-to-brain coupling in the observation-execution system. We conclude that formulating a model of comforting touch offers a mechanistic framework for understanding the effects of touch as well as other social interactions involving social support.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-273
Number of pages11
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
StatePublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Brain-to-brain coupling
  • Comforting
  • Empathy
  • Hyperscanning
  • Observation-execution system
  • Reward system
  • Touch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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