Psychology of the Embrace: How Body Rhythms Communicate the Need to Indulge or Separate

Behav Sci (Basel). 2017 Nov 29;7(4):80. doi: 10.3390/bs7040080.


In the context of embodiment research, there has been a growing interest in phenomena of interpersonal resonance. Given that haptic communication is particularly under-researched, we focused on the phenomenon of embracing. When we embrace a dear friend to say good-bye at the end of a great evening, we typically first employ smooth and yielding movements with round transitions between muscular tensing and relaxing (smooth, indulging rhythms), and when the embrace is getting too long, we start to use slight patting (sharp, fighting rhythms with sharp transitions) on the back or the shoulders of the partner in order to indicate that we now want to end the embrace. On the ground of interpersonal resonance, most persons (per-sonare, latin = to sound through) understand these implicit nonverbal signals, expressed in haptic tension-flow changes, and will react accordingly. To experimentally test the hypothesis that smooth, indulgent rhythms signal the wish to continue, and sharp, fighting rhythms signal the wish to separate from an embrace, we randomly assigned 64 participants, all students at the University of Heidelberg, to two differently sequenced embrace conditions: (a) with the fighting rhythm at the end of the sequence of two indulgent rhythms (Sequence A: smooth-smooth-sharp); and (b) with the fighting rhythm between two indulgent rhythms (Sequence B: smooth-sharp-smooth). Participants were embraced for 30 s by a female confe-derate with their eyes blindfolded to focus on haptic and kinesthetic cues without being distracted by visual cues. They were instructed to let go of a handkerchief that they held between the fingers of their dominant hand during the embrace, when they felt that the embracer signaled the wish to finish the embrace. Participants significantly more often dropped the handkerchief in the phase of the fighting rhythm, no matter in which location it occurred in the embrace sequence. We assume that we learn such rhythmic behaviors and their meaning from the beginning of life in the communication with caregivers and meaningful others. Some are universal and some are quite idiosyncratic. Infants seem to be highly sensitive to the dynamic nuances presented to them, demonstrating a high capacity for embodied resonance and a high behavioral plasticity. Such adaptive mechanisms are assumed to lay the foundations of family culture (including the degree to which nonverbal cues are attended to, the communication of taboos, etc.) and larger culture, and may also play an important role in interpersonal attraction and aesthetic experience.

Keywords: Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP); embodiment; haptic communication; interpersonal resonance; movement analysis; movement qualities; movement rhythms; musicality; rhythmicity; vitality affects.