Unmasking The Mystery Of Why People Touch Their Faces

Why do our hands wander toward our faces: stroking chins, scratching eyebrows, rubbing noses? German researchers have discovered the neurology and psychology at play.

Fanny Jimenez

BERLIN — People constantly touch their faces. They stroke their chins or eyebrows, rub their noses or ears, cover their mouths or throats. We find it normal because everybody does it, but what does it mean?

Animals only touch themselves if there is an apparent reason to do so — for example, if a pesky insect is bothering them. Apes are the only exception. They too touch their faces, and anybody watching them would be unable to discern why.

This fact has puzzled scientists for over 200 years, mainly because the amount of touching increases when people or apes appear to be under stress.

Brain researchers working with Martin Grunwald at the University of Leipzig have succeeded in solving the puzzle. In the journal Brain Research, they report on many years of experimentation during which they analyzed the brain's electrical activity shortly before and after spontaneous face touching.

They discovered that touching changed electrical potentials in the brain, namely those having to do with storing information in working memory and emotional condition.

Shortly before touching the face, these parameters decreased. That means that working memory was overloaded, which is paired with a feeling of emotional overload. But after research subjects touched their faces, the parameters increased again.

Their conclusion is that spontaneous face-touching helps to regulate cognitive overload and stress. This "self-stimulation," as the Leipzig researchers call it, balances out disturbances in processing information and emotional swings.

What is still unclear is just why touching our faces has these particular effects.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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