How to hug yourself, and why

This text was prepared as a practical workshop at the Chaos Computer Club event GPN18 at ZKM Karlsruhe. It depends on not just being read but also performed.

Today, with all the technology in your pocket you have dozens of ways to communicate with your loved ones, at any moment. But what if you need a hug and there’s no one near? Could you hug yourself?

The naive self hugging

A quick online search shows a simple instruction on self hugging. It’s exactly what you might imagine when you hear “hugging yourself”.

Self-hug manual from wikihow.

For the sake of the experiment, try it out. It feels alright. Not great. More like a defensive stance rather than a hug. Something is amiss. Perhaps, because the movements and stance seem so similar to an embrace between two people, the absence of the partner becomes painfully obvious.

We can experiment with finding other positions, hugging ourselves on different areas of the body to come closer to the feeling of a hug:

  • With both hands, touch the same area of your body.
  • Then, try touching your body asymmetrically, meaning one hand touches e.g. your belly, while the other touches your neck. This can create a feeling of connecting seemingly unrelated parts.
  • Finally, try touching your body parts in a combination you never experienced before, such as touching the inner thigh with one hand and your shoulder with the other. Continue searching for new and unexplored combinations. This excercise is great fun and refreshes your sense of proprioception.

Think about what position worked best for you.

My four year old housemate has a specific position she goes into every time she over excerts herself socially or emotionally.

One thumb in the mouth, the other under the armpit.

While being in this position she fully ignores her outside world. She retracts to be just by herself for a few minutes, like a snail retracting into its shell. This position is a good example of self-referencing the sensory organs.

Self referencing the sensory organs.

In contrast to every other sensory organ, the organs of touch can sense themselves. While we don’t see our eyes, hear our ears, smell our nostrils or taste our tastebuds, we can actually touch our touch sensors with our other touch sensors. As hands have the most neurons dedicated to them in the somatosensory areas of the brain, they play a big role in how we perceive our surroundings. Now let them touch themselves and see what happens.

All major religions put their hands together for prayer.

Looks familiar, doesn’t it? The prayer hands position is found in many cultural and religious practices - in christianity, hinduism and buddhism, in yoga and in meditation. While I have found no scientific literature on the (neuro)physiological characteristics of this position, when I put my non-religious hands together, I do feel a calming effect. It even works when connecting just the finger tips or, to a lesser degree, just two fingers.

A similar effect can be achieved by touching alternately the other neurologically well connected areas of your body, such as your face, lips, tongue, nose, ears, feet, anus and sexual organs. Try touching them in combinations that you don’t remember experiencing before.

Dance and hug

When hugging we remain for the most part in a fixed position. Except for the initiation and the decoupling periods, the hug is static. Try adding some movement to your hug and you will be misunderstood as trying to turn hugging into something sexual or into dancing.

Dance has always been a social event - you danced as a pair or part of a larger group. Social dance is about closeness and distance, embrace and evasion. The present-day dance that can often be experienced in discos and clubs is less social. It can be described more as an assortment of individual dancers, that sometimes pair up or form groups. A partner dance relates to individual dance in the same way hugging relates to self hugging.

There is one simple experiment we can do to test the boundaries between self hug, dance and sexuality. Put on your favourite dance music and dance like you always would. Now place your hands somewhere on your body, while continuing to dance. Don’t actively move your hands, let them rest for a while where you placed them. Then slow down your dancing until you just stand straight, while still having your hands touch your body.

What was the sensation? A dance with your hands on your body immediately becomes more sexual and more expressive, while just standing still in the same position may feel similar to a hug.

Chest compression

The first embrace we experience is that of our mothers. They provide warmth, food, security and attention - basically everything a newborn may need for quite some time. So, a baby has to maintain close proximity to their mother at all times. A baby left alone would start to cry while the presence of mother’s body has a calming effect. In many cultures the babies are carried close to the body, on the back or on the front.

There is considerable evidence that such close relationship is beneficial for the baby and promotes attachment between infant and caregiver. A similar tradition there is a custom of swaddling the babies tightly in a way that restricts movement. A meta-analysis on swaddling found it to have a similar calming effect as wrapping the baby close to your body.

Heavy blankets are used in clinics as a way to calm anxious patients. Research indicates 63% reported lower anxiety after use of a weighted blanket as well as positive effects on insomnia(PDF). In recent years, a lot of companies and crowdfunding efforts have sprung up to offer weighted blankets to customers. Similarly, weighted or pneumatically operated compression vests and jackets exist, that exert deep pressure stimulation on the wearer, with a similar calming effect. They are marketed mostly as calming devices for on the go use to autistic and ADHD patients. And dogs.

Different weighted compression vests for mammals.

With this in mind it seems that even such activities as camping may not only provide health benefits through physical exertion, exposure to nature and clean air, but just as well through the weight of the backpack and the feeling of being tightly swaddled by the sleeping bag.

There are reports that practitioners of bondage get calmer after a bondage session and of corsets being good for your mental health. Quite a lot of non-mainstream sexual practices, including BDSM, vinyl, latex and leather fetish have elements of tightening of the chest and movement restriction in them. Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., writes regarding BDSM:

The results revealed that both bottoms and tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states. Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality” (Dietrich, 2003), which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions. Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. We believe that these pleasurable altered states of consciousness might be one of the motivations that people have for engaging in BDSM activities.

While writing this text I’ve put, for the lack of better equipment, a simple thera band (resistance band) around my chest. Yes, it did have a calming effect.

Hug as we know it is an experience of mutual vulnerability and reciprocal immobilization, as each hugger is restricting the other while being restricted themselves. It only works if we trust our hugging partner so much that we allow us to be held.

Joint attention

If two or more persons direct their attention to the same thing - if a child shows you a stone she found, if your date points out a wrongly worded item on the restaurant menu, if you watch a film together - you experience joint attention.

Joint attention is of great importance during childhood, as a way of learning language, communication, empathy and social structures. Joint attention can be triadic or dyadic. In the first case two individuals look at the object, while understanding that they both look at it. In the case of dyadic joint attention the individuals themselves are focus of attention, such as mother and child smiling at each other or a typical conversation between two people.

Dyadic joint attention without verbalisation appears in dance and martial arts, especially those with the focus at reading your partner such as tai chi or aikido. Contact Improvisation, a dance form where two people improvise while sharing touch, can be seen as the manifestation of purely physical joint attention through movement. A hug then is an example of physical joint attention through non moving presence.

Marina Abramovic, the pop queen of performance art, is also working with joint attention. Many of her performance pieces - such as The artist is present or As one - are based on turning visitors into participants of joing attention events. Though she can be criticized for guru-like demeanor and exploitation of volunteers it can’t be denied that she did build a successful career through using attention and guided attention in art.

Through joint attention, togetherness is created. Take a moment to sit still with someone, without communicating through words, eyes or movement, just paying attention to the existence of each other. Suddenly, you are together in time.

The social practice of ‘a minute of silence’ to mourn a loss or tragic events has elements of joint attention. In this case though the attention is not pointed towards the present but acts as a bridge between the present moment and the moment of loss.

Joint attention without a counterpart is prevalent in many religious techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and prayer.

So, can we hug ourselves?

We can try. And we do try, every so often. Having a chest tightening device around your body, with hands in a prayer position and your attention turned to yourself sounds like the closest thing you can get - mechanically - to a hug.

Still, touch is only a small part of affective touch. After all, it’s the affection and connectedness that we crave. And affection and connectednes can only be created between independent, self-sufficienc beings.

What else could have been written here but wasn’t: