This shirt tells others where you don’t like to be touched

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At the intersection of wearable electronics and heart-rate monitors are results that tell us not just where humans do and do not like to be touched, but also how our bodies betray the fact that some of the touches we find “uncomfortable” can in fact calm us down.

The video above, which has just been posted online, depicts research first published two years ago by Sylvia Hou-Yan Cheng of the Human Media Lab at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. The point of the study, conducted with shirts covered in 24 touch-sensitive patches on the shoulders, arms, back, chest and abdomen, was to determine where players of an electronically-enhanced game of tag would be comfortable touching one another.

Cheng’s results are straightforward: People report that they aren’t comfortable being touched anywhere but their shoulders, arms, and upper back. But all participants in the study were wired with heart rate monitors, and those monitors told a different story.

It’s long been known that humans’ heart-rate decelerates when we are touched in certain ways. Psychologists have taken this to signify the calming effects of touch. But many types of touch are off limits, culturally. Indeed, two of the participants in Hou-Yan Cheng’s research—a man who was asked to touch sensors on the upper chest of a woman, and the woman herself—nervously reported that in their own cultures they would have to be married before this kind of touch would be acceptable.

Yet while both male and female subjects reported that they were uncomfortable being touched on the chest, and their heart rates sometimes went up before being touched there, the touch itself caused their heart rates to decrease.

The study shows what you might not need a research grant to work out: When future interaction designers come up with clothes that can be used to communicate information through touch, they’ll have to be careful where they place the sensors. But it also shows that even as culture determines what kind of touch we find acceptable, its ability to calm us is fairly universal.