Would touching a furry seal help against pain?
In these COVID-pandemic times where social distancing is IN and hugging is OUT, people suffer increasingly from loneliness, isolation and pain. Could robots supply us with the warmth and comfort in the void that the lack of human touch has left?
A group from the Ben Gurion University in Israel have endeavored to assess this by using a Japanese robotic seal named PARO that responds to touch and talk by making eye-contact, real-life baby seal sounds, and eye and tail movements in response to petting. They recruited 83 healthy participants who were randomly divided into two groups. The PARO group, and the control group.
About three-quarters of the participants were allocated to the PARO group, which had three pain measurement moments: baseline, PARO present in the room without touching, and touching PARO. The control group had 3 such measures on the same time intervals, but without ever having interaction with PARO.
Measurements that were taken included questionnaires on happiness state, pain perception, and salivary oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, the “love” hormone - secreted when emotional touch occurs, on its own could be linked to decrease in pain, attested to by various studies into pain in infants.
For pain perception, thermal heat pain stimuli by the TSA-II were used. The stimuli were calibrated to each participant’s pain intensity of mild (4 on the visual analogue scale - VAS) and severe pain (6 VAS) before start of the testing procedures.
Did petting PARO actually help?
Analysis of the pain ratings showed that for the “Mild Pain” stimulus, the PARO group had significantly lower pain ratings during the “touch” condition as compared to the baseline. This was not the case for the “no touch” condition in the PARO group, while in the control group there was no significant decline in pain ratings.
For the “Severe Pain” stimuli, the PARO group showed decrease of pain ratings both in the “touch” and the “no touch” conditions, with a significant decrease in the “touch” vs. the “no touch” condition. For the controls there was also a decrease in pain ratings compared to the baseline, but no significant difference between the second and third follow-up.
Interestingly, Oxytocin levels in the PARO group decreased along the study measurement points in contrast to those of the controls which stayed steady.
PARO, pain, and oxytocin
The authors concluded that the interaction with PARO, the robotic baby seal, decreased both mild and severe pain, with a better effect when touching PARO. They also hypothesized that the surprising decrease in oxytocin levels were due to a reduction of stress while interacting with PARO, as oxytocin is also secreted during stress.
Robotic seals may be effective in reducing pain, although the mechanisms through which they work still need to be elucidated.
Geva, N., Uzefovsky, F., & Levy-Tzedek, S. (2020). Touching the social robot PARO reduces pain perception and salivary oxytocin levels. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-15.
Link to the full-text article: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-66982-y.pdf