Summary: One hour-long session with a cuddly seal-like social robot increased happiness, boosted oxytocin levels, and reduced pain in adults.
Source: Ben-Gurion University
Could furry social robots help bolster moods and reduce pain when human to human contact isn’t an option, for example, during a pandemic?
According to a new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers published in Scientific Reports, a one-time, hour-long session with a plush, seal-like social robot reduced pain and oxytocin levels, and increased happiness. The Japanese social robot, PARO, emits seal-like sounds and moves its head and flippers in response to being spoken to and touched.
Human-to-human contact has been found to bolster mood and reduce pain in previous studies. Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek of the BGU Department of Physical Therapy and her team investigated whether a furry social robot could induce similar effects when normal human-to-human contact is not available.
Levy-Tzedek and her team discovered that a single, 60-minute interaction with PARO actually improved mood as well as reduced mild or severe pain. When participants touched PARO, they experienced greater pain reduction than when it was simply present in their room.
Surprisingly, the BGU researchers discovered lower oxytocin levels in those who interacted with PARO than in the control group participants, who did not meet PARO. Typically, oxytocin, sometimes called “the love homone,” is elevated among romantic partners or mothers playing with their children, so a lower level of oxytocin wasn’t expected. However, more recent studies have shown that outside of close relationships, oxytocin production is a stress indicator and therefore, a reduction could indicate relaxation.
“These findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time, when social distancing is a crucial factor in public health,” says Dr. Levy-Tzedek.
Funding: The research was partially supported by the Helmsley Charitable Trust through the Agricultural, Biological and Cognitive Robotics Initiative and by the Marcus Endowment Fund, both at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Financial support was provided by the Rosetrees Trust, the Borten Family Foundation and the Consolidated Anti-Aging Foundation grants. This research was also supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grants No. 535/16 and 2166/16), the Israel Pain Association, and received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skodowska-Curie grant agreement No 754340.
Touching the social robot PARO reduces pain perception and salivary oxytocin levels
Human-human social touch improves mood and alleviates pain. No studies have so far tested the effect of human-robot emotional touch on experimentally induced pain ratings, on mood and on oxytocin levels in healthy young adults. Here, we assessed the effect of touching the robot PARO on pain perception, on mood and on salivary oxytocin levels, in 83 young adults. We measured their perceived pain, happiness state, and salivary oxytocin. For the 63 participants in the PARO group, pain was assessed in three conditions: Baseline, Touch (touching PARO) and No-Touch (PARO present). The control group (20 participants) underwent the same measurements without ever encountering PARO. There was a decrease in pain ratings and in oxytocin levels and an increase in happiness ratings compared to baseline only in the PARO group. The Touch condition yielded a larger decrease in pain ratings compared to No-Touch. These effects correlated with the participants’ positive perceptions of the interaction with PARO. Participants with higher perceived ability to communicate with PARO experienced a greater hypoalgesic effect when touching PARO. We show that human-robot social touch is effective in reducing pain ratings, improving mood and – surprisingly – reducing salivary oxytocin levels in adults.