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The Magic of C-Cell Touch

Updated: Sep 9, 2023




C-Cells (or C-Fibers) are part of the amazing collection of sensory cells in our skin, all of which process various kinds of touch and send messages to different parts of our brain.


We have C-Cells almost everywhere on our body. Most of our body is covered with what is called "hairy skin", where hair follicles are part of the skin's structure. C-Cells and the fibers that connect them to our neurological network are often associated with hair follicles, and in areas where hair is present, can be activated solely by the hair being moved. They also react to caressing touch, which is generally considered light touch moving at 1-4 inches per second. Only small areas on our body are considered "non-hairy", or glabrous, skin. The palms of our hands, soles of our feet, our lips, the glans penis and foreskin and the inner parts of the labia.



Here are some corresponding passages from the book “Touch” by Neuroscientist David J. Linden, published 2015.


“When caresses of various speeds are delivered to the forearm or thigh of normal subjects, the caresses that are reported as feeling the most pleasant are those in the 3 to 10 centimeter (1 to 4 inch) per second range, which are precisely those that most strongly activate the C-tactile fibers.”


“C-fibers (primarily) innervate hairy skin… and appear to be tuned for interpersonal touch. These axons… are caress sensors.”


“A caress (C-fiber touch) communicates (to the brain) that you are safe. You can trust the person administering it, just as you trust your mother, who first caressed you; he or she is not a threat.”


“Caresses (C-fiber touch) activate not only the posterior insula and the somatosensory cortices, but also… areas of the cortex involved in social cognition (bonding and belonging) such as the superior temporal sulcus (social processing), the medial prefrontal cortex (memory and decision making), and the anterior cingulate cortex (conflict resolution).”


While all the impacts are not fully understood in these brain regions, what is amazing is how powerful and beneficial C-fiber touch can be in stimulating important functions of the brain.


As well as creating good sensations (feeling cared for, safe, relaxed), prolonged C-Cell touch (40 minutes or more) can create new neurological understandings related to the areas of belonging, social processing and conflict resolution, whether in the past or present. And the effect can last for hours after the touch session. Some participants report having dreams the following night where difficult memories had some kind of resolution.


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As Linden notes above, our first experiences of C-Cell touch is likely to come from a parent. So what if your parents never caressed you? Or what if you were caressed by a childhood abuser? While these situations might be difficult to process emotionally, they do not negate the functioning of this neurological pathway, nor the positive effects on the brain regions mentioned. In fact, this is all the more reason for C-Cell touch to be re-experienced and normalized.


Also, this link to the caressing touch of parents indicates the high responsibility of a C-Cell toucher, to give the cherishing touch in the same way. Just as a parent caresses full of wonder at the miraculousness of this little being, so can we, as touchers, deliver cherishing caresses in the same way. What is not to marvel about any human being, indeed any form of life?


This is critical to understand, because in our culture we have linked cherishing caresses with intimacy between lovers (which is the other common way we experience some level of C-Cell touch) and sexual arousal. But a parent, for example, under normal circumstances, does not touch with intentions of intimate sexual arousal. The focus is simply on appreciation and acceptance. So, in fact, anyone can effectively provide C-Cell touch to another person.


As with massage, in which touch is considered therapeutic and non-sexual, C-fiber touch can be delivered in the same way. Does that mean sexual arousal will not happen? Of course not. We all know stories of people receiving a massage (especially people with a penis) getting visibly aroused. The same can happen with C-fiber touch, even though it is NOT the intent.


How can we be with this possibility without making up stories about whether it is appropriate or not? Well, arousal is linked to a feeling of acceptance and the body feeling good. I like the description of a person’s erection as the “body smiling”. The body is smiling… so let it smile. If it happens nothing needs to be done about it. If anything it is an indicator of feeling open and deeply accepted. In other words, the touch is doing its miraculous work on some pretty crucial social memory centers of our brain.


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The other benefit of C-Cell touch is the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, which is manufactured by the hypothalamus and released via the pituitary gland, is also well known for its bonding and feeling-of-well-being effects. It is released in a variety of ways, including food intake, exercise, hugs, massage, close contact… and also via caressing touch.


Released into our brains under the right circumstances, oxytocin has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication


Recent studies have shown oxytocin seems to act like a volume dial, turning up and amplifying brain activity related to whatever someone is already experiencing.


So as you are receiving C-Cell touch you are getting two benefits. One, you are receiving direct neurological stimulation of the bonding/belonging parts of the brain. Two, as you receive this touch, oxytocin is released, potentially amplifying the stimulation and response.


For more on the current scientific findings on gentle, C-fiber touch, watch this German documentary: https://youtu.be/NOazEIijXTo?si=ezDQM26XXUrOxXBp




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