How and why bromantic cuddling triggers the same neurochemical response as sex.
This past Sunday, four NFL teams competed for a spot in the Super Bowl, but only two ended their games with the big celebratory hugs, chest bumps, and by dumping buckets of Gatorade on old men. We're all used to seeing male athletes show affection this way, but it's not widely known that the same impulses that drive the hugging and butt-slapping are among the same that set up the desire to spoon and cuddle. In other words, from a neurological perspective, Cam Newton giving his coach a big victory hug is remarkably similar to when he cuddles up to watch some Netflix with his girlfriend.
Other than being peripherally aware of lots of sideline butt-slaps and fist-bumps, I never imagined there was too much more to how male athletes showed each other physical affection. Given the popular reaction to PhD Eric Anderon's study on cuddling among male athletes, published back in 2014, my guess is I wasn't completely alone in that assumption.
Anderon's study, a series of interviews with 40 separate male student athletes in the UK, caught some attention partly because of a few choice quotes ("Sometimes you grab his cock, sort of as a joke…it's not like you're going to wank him"), but mostly because his study painted a counterintuitive picture of the male athlete.
Nearly all of those in Anderson's sample had shared beds with other men and reported cuddling (Anderson and his team defined cuddling as "gentle physical contact for a prolonged period of time") as a common and unremarkable occurrence. While Anderson explained to Motherboard that "The cuddling need not to be described as sexual, with the traditional idea of leading to orgasm," he said that there was a sexual component to their cuddling "…in that it [snuggling/cuddling] evokes many of the same mechanisms as sex."
As for Anderson's claim of cuddling being semi-sexual in nature, he's not wrong
How, exactly, does spooning and cuddling among ostensibly straight men mimic the same mechanisms as sex? And why is it that these hetero, masculine, male athletes wanted to cuddle in the first place? One of the best ways to answer those question is to first try and answer another: Why does cuddling feel good?
According to Chris Fraley PhD, and professor of psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the reason that we both desire and get satisfaction out of physical touch is because it was evolutionarily advantageous to.
"Humans are born into the world as vulnerable animals; we lack the ability to care for, feed, or protect ourselves," Fraley said in an email. As a result, during the evolutionary process, newborn babies that were most fit and likely to survive were ones that were able to form close attachments with those who could protect and feed them.
While most newborn mammals are pretty inept, human babies are especially dependent on others to survive. For example, it can take between nine months to a year for a human child to walk, while other mammals like deer or impalas can hop around a day after they're born. According to the Scientific American, a newborn chimpanzee is anywhere between 18 to 21 months further along in its development than a human when it is first born.
In part, because human children are so vulnerable, Fraley continued, "Infants have evolved a sophisticated motivational system for seeking and maintaining the protection of potential caregivers. And, on the flip-side of this, caregivers have evolved motivational systems that foster a deep emotional connection to those to whom they perceive as vulnerable." Essentially, cuddling acts like a behavioral cue, signaling that all is OK to both the cuddle-ee and the cuddler. (This theory that Fraley outlined is part of a much large one pioneered by John Bowlby PhD, a British psychoanalyst and psychologist who studied child development.)
Our desire to cuddle isn't purely a social one, it's ingrained into our biochemistry. When we talked about cuddling with neuroscientist Paul Zak, he explained that "Cuddling induces the brain to produce a chemical called oxytocin. This relaxes us, makes us feel safe around others, and increases our empathic abilities." Zak went on to say that oxytocin is produced "deep in the brainstem, in an area called the hypothalamus," making it "evolutionarily old and its production outside of our control or conscious awareness."
After being produced and secreted, oxytocin then triggers the production of dopamine, the same chemical that makes you feel good when you go dancing with your friends, or eat chocolate or carbs. It's dopamine, Zak says, that's responsible for making it "feel good to cuddle…and sets up the desire to cuddle in the future."
No matter how deep the mechanism that drives cuddling, however, it's ultimately a socially mediated behavior. It is in part because of that fact that cuddling has only recently become more commonplace among the subset of men Anderson studied, male student athletes.
In recent years as the fear of being perceived as gay has decreased among men, Anderson wrote in his study, "homophobia ceases to be an effective way to regulate masculinity because it is no longer effective in stigmatizing heterosexual men," and as result, "there is an expansion of the set of actions that men can perform and still be considered heteromasculine." Once considered exclusively motivated by sexual desire, cuddling or spooning is seen as something closer to a hug or among a small but increasing number of men.
As for Anderson's claim of cuddling being semi-sexual in nature, he's not wrong. Oxytocin is produced both while cuddling and during sex, but the use of oxytocin in the brain isn't limited to cuddling and sex—it's also secreted in women during childbirth, and while breastfeeding. There's also a real difference in the amount of oxytocin released during sex versus while cuddling. According to Zak, "during sex, there is an average increase of about a 100 percent [in oxytocin] from baseline, and the effect is larger in women than men," but while cuddling, there is a "moderate oxytocin stimulus, increasing from single digits to 40-50 percent (for someone you really like/love/lust) and again stronger in women than men."
In addition to the different amounts of oxytocin released during sex vs. while cuddling, the neurochemistry of sex is much more complicated than the release of two chemicals in the brain; there are four different defined stages of sex as defined by researchers Masters and Johnson (excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution), and during each stage there are different amounts of a variety of chemicals at play including testosterone which makes a person feel virile, and prolactin which relieves the sense of arousal after sex.
So yeah, cuddling is definitely semi-sexual, even among straight men, but by that same logic, one would have to say that cuddling with your dog, hugging your dad, or coddling your newborn child would be equally semi-sexual. Maybe that's not something we want to be so broad about.