The caress as a unit of human recognition: better badly accompanied than alone?

The caress as a unit of human recognition: better badly accompanied than alone?

Berne defined the caress as a unit of human recognition, indicating any type of action that implies the recognition of the other. Caresses can be classified according to the method of expression, direction or quality, intent, value, the outcome in who receives them and finally based on the source.


Motivation studies have always questioned what the factors were at the basis of everyone’s behavior, relational need seems to be one of the answers.

Advertising message The term motivation defines the set of needs, desires, intentions at the basis of everyone’s behavior (Liotti, 2000).

To explain the motivation behind human behavior, Sigmund Freud proposed the so-called “hydraulic model”. According to Freud, the motivational drive is traceable in a mere drive discharge; the infant-caregiver relationship also has as its ultimate goal the satisfaction of physiological needs and the restoration of internal homeostasis (Freud, 1914).

Subsequent studies have, however, highlighted the need for attachment as a primary need.

Harry Harlow (1958), an American psychologist, through an experiment involving Rhesus monkeys showed how these primates preferred a maternal surrogate that gave heat rather than nourishment.

Even in light of the most recent neuroscientific research, the Freudian hydraulic model does not seem to have any comparison, the structure of the human brain suggests the existence of three different motivational levels (Liotti, 2010).

McLean sees the human brain structured in three different layers, the result of evolution. The deepest layer is the reptilian brain (brain stem, nuclei of the base), non-social, oriented to the satisfaction of physiological needs, protection, exploration of the environment and control of vital functions, such as the heart rhythm and breathing; the intermediate layer is the brain of the mammals (amygdala and gyrus gyrus), oriented towards social interaction and which also includes the attachment and care system; the last is the neo-cortical brain (the neocortex), exclusive of primates, which deals with all cognitive and rational functions (McLean, 1984). Therefore, McLean’s tripartite brain model combines primary physiological needs with the need for attachment;

Edelman suggests to distinguish the biological self from the non-self: the biological self belongs to the activities of the most archaic structures of brain formation (brain stem and limbic system) and related to nutrition, sexual reproduction, but also to the formation of social bonds; the non-self is instead attributable to the thalamus and neocortex, evolutionarily more recent structures involved in knowledge and communication (Liotti, 2010).

Given these premises, the Freudian hydraulic model would be valid if man had only the reptilian brain identified by McLean, aimed precisely at restoring internal homeostasis; but already the limbic system suggests an intersubjectivity as the foundation of human motivation (Liotti, 2010).

Eric Berne (1964) explained man’s drive to relationality by introducing the concept of stimulus hunger (Stewart and Joines, 1987). The infant immediately needs the closeness of the other, a need that can be compared to the need for food, fundamental for survival.

Berne says, “If a person is not caressed by some of his fellow men, his mind becomes corrupted and his humanity becomes parched” (Berne, 1970, 191); Furthermore, neuroscience provides us with a solid basis since stimulated children develop a larger brain with stronger brain cell connections than deprived children (Carissa et al .; 2019; Wiggins, 2000; Kandel, 2005).

Advertising message Parallel to the development of the infant there is also a shift from a hunger for stimulation to another hunger that Berne calls “hunger for recognition”, a sort of compromise between the need to re-propose physical contact with the mother and social forces who oppose it. The hunger for recognition corresponds to everyone’s need to be seen (Stewart and Joines, 1987).

Berne called the unit of human recognition the “caress”, indicating any type of action that implies the recognition of the other.

Caresses can be classified according to the mode of expression (verbal, physical); direction or quality (conditioned, acknowledgments related to doing; unconditional, acknowledgments related to being); intent, valence (positive and negative); the outcome in who receives them (constructive, unproductive, and destructive); and finally according to the source (internal or external) (Wollams and Brown, 1978).

In any case, a negative caress is always better than not receiving it at all, everyone prefers negative acknowledgments to total deprivation; better badly accompanied than alone.

Over the years, each will develop its own favorite caress quotient (Capers and Glen, 1971), consequently will accept some types of caresses and reject others, McKenna (1974) speaks in this regard of “filter” of caresses.

Another filter in giving and receiving caresses is placed culturally, in fact Steiner (1971) has identified a sort of “economy of caresses”, unwritten rules handed down from generation to generation, such as:

In the exchange of caresses, the recognition of the responsibility of everyone is fundamental, not only of those who send it but also of those who receive it: those who send it take responsibility for the message, those who receive it to accept or reject it and the moods that they follow.

An abandonment of the infantile decisions consequent to parenting, and more generally cultural education, is therefore useful, recognizing that the caresses required have the same value as those given spontaneously, or that you can caress yourself and develop the ability to self-celebrate beyond self-criticism, and again that you can openly refuse caresses that you don’t like (Stewart and Joines, 1987).

Therefore, a reappropriation of responsibility within the various relational exchanges is fundamental.