The science of touch

Why do we choose one product over another? You'd be surprised to learn how much happens in your unconscious each time you make a purchase.

In touch with consumers

Professor Francis McGlone from Unilever R&D is carrying out research into sensory nerves and brain and cognitive processes to open up new ways to understand the choices people make when buying and using products. Francis believes that when we buy food or personal care items we're motivated by deeply embedded behaviours. "They're unconscious – and can't be reached through conventional questioning techniques."

Instinctive behaviours

Instead he's using a range of measurement techniques in cognitive neuroscience, including brain imaging, to see what happens when we interact with products.

Instinctive behaviours, such as grooming (for example, hair washing), feeding and foraging (replaced by shopping) are more than purely functional activities. They activate a particular network in our brain, creating feelings of well-being. While you expect a shampoo to clean your hair, this research shows you’re also driven to wash your hair because it feels good.

Switching on the pleasure system

Working with a team of scientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, Francis discovered a special class of nerves in the skin which respond to pleasant touch. C-fibres take longer to transmit their sensory message and they’re very particular about the type of stimulation they need. A gentle caress of around 5cm a second, with a force of about 1g, is ideal – exactly the kind of touch we use when grooming ourselves or others.

"We can see that this kind of stroking activates parts of the brain responsible for well-being and happiness, we groom to feel good, not just to get clean," says Francis.

This is rich terrain for Unilever whose products appeal to consumers through touch, whether it's the sensation of shampoo on the scalp or the way packaging feels in the palm of the hand. "These experiences are multi-sensory, so an in-depth knowledge of how our sensory systems effect perception and emotion is integral to our research," adds Francis.

"Emotional and sensory aspects of a product aren't just an add-on to functionality – they're vital, for babies right through to grannies," concludes Francis.

Reference: Coding of pleasant touch by unmyelinated afferents in humans. Line S Löken, Johan Wessberg, India Morrison, Francis McGlone, Håkan Olausson. Nature Neuroscience 2009, 12, 547 - 548

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