Slow stroking touch activates C-tactile (CT) fibres in the human skin and is typically described as pleasant. Over a longer duration of stroking, affective habituation sets in, indicated by a reduction in rated pleasantness. However, it is not clear whether the group level effect is represented on an individual level. We analyse the stability of individual ratings of slow stroking touch and their relationship to behavioural and physiological measures.
Forty-eight participants (23 women) were repeatedly stroked with a velocity maximally activating CT fibres. The perceived pleasantness was rated on a visual analogue scale. In order to examine the stability of pleasantness ratings, the experiment was repeated after a couple of days. During the experiment, electrocardiogram (ECG) and facial-electromyography (EMG) data were recorded.
On the group-level, previous results of affective habituation to touch were replicated and stable across sessions. On the individual level, however, less than half of the participants showed a significant reduction of pleasantness in the course of the experiment. Moreover, the remaining participants showed either no change, random rating behaviour or even an increase in pleasantness ratings during the course of the experiment.
The individual response patterns were variable across sessions but stable above the chance level. Furthermore, the response patterns could not be explicitly associated with any of the behavioural or physiological measures. Our findings indicate a lack of group-to-individual generalizability for affective habituation to touch. The variability of rating patterns over time indicates that they are not conclusively determined by stable individual characteristics. Future research investigating touch should favour a more individual approach to the more commonly applied group analysis.
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