Topography and relationship-specific social touching in individuals displaying body image disturbances

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


  • Ashleigh Bellard - , Liverpool John Moores University (Author)
  • Jyothisa Mathew - , Bundeswehr University of Munich (Author)
  • Wenhan Sun - , Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Author)
  • Linda Denkow - , Bundeswehr University of Munich (Author)
  • Ali Najm - , Cyprus University of Technology (Author)
  • Despina Michael-Grigoriou - , Cyprus University of Technology (Author)
  • Paula Trotter - , Liverpool John Moores University (Author)
  • Francis McGlone - , University of Liverpool (UOL) (Author)
  • Merle Fairhurst - , Junior Professorship in Social Affective Touch, Clusters of Excellence CeTI: Centre for Tactile Internet (Author)
  • Valentina Cazzato - , Liverpool John Moores University (Author)


Interpersonal touch is intimately related to the emotional bond between the touch giver and the touch receiver. Which bodily regions we touch in those individuals in our social network is relationship specific. Perception of interpersonal touch is altered in psychiatric disorders characterised by body image disturbances (BIDs). Here, we examined whether the ‘imagined’ experience of social touch in individuals with BIDs is body topography- and relationship-specific. By using an interactive media mobile App, the Virtual Touch Toolkit, high versus low levels of BIDs participants completed heatmaps of full-body virtual avatars, to indicate the body regions they find soothing/unpleasant to be touched by a loved one versus an acquaintance. Self-reports of interoceptive awareness and dysmorphic concerns were also measured. Overall, imagined touch was rated as the most soothing when received from a loved one, and also when this was delivered to ‘social’ body regions. The importance of the social relationship for the imagined tactile interactions was particularly evident for the high levels of BIDs group, with greater problems with interoceptive awareness predicting higher soothing touch ratings when this was received by a loved one. Despite the evidence that imagined bodily contacts between meaningful people is the most pleasant for socially acceptable bodily regions, our findings may suggest a greater sensitivity to relation-specific bodily patterns of social touch particularly in the high level of BIDs group. Heightened interoceptive awareness may also play a key role in this experience of bodily affective contacts. Future research for body-oriented therapy for BIDs is encouraged to systematically probe the efficacy of imagined social touch interaction protocols which use more plausible, ecological, scenarios where touch is delivered by loved ones and to socially acceptable bodily regions.


Original languageEnglish
Article number13198
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

External IDs

PubMed 37580362
ORCID /0000-0001-6540-5891/work/150883494