We all know there’s nothing quite like a hug or a touch to brighten our mood. In fact, human-to-human contact has been found to bolster mood and reduce pain in several scientific studies.

But human-to-human contact is scarce in corona times, leaving many people sad and lonely.

Biomedical engineer Shelly Levy-Tzedek of Ben-Gurion University’s physical therapy department decided to see if a furry therapeutic robot named Paro could have the same effects.

Made in Japan, Paro looks like a furry white seal. It makes seal-like noises and moves its head and flippers in response to being touched and spoken to.

Levy-Tzedek and her team discovered that a one-time interaction with Paro, lasting less than an hour, did improve mood and reduced mild and severe pain. When participants touched Paro, they experienced greater pain reduction than when it was simply present in the room with them.

Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek’s experimental setup with the Paro therapeutic robot. Photo: courtesy

“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,” said Levy-Tzedek.

Her team’s results were published in Scientific Reports.

One unexpected discovery was that interacting with Paro lowered participants’ levels of oxytocin. This so-called “love hormone” runs high in mothers playing with their children and between romantic partners.

This head-scratcher can be explained by recent studies showing that outside of close relationships, oxytocin production is an indicator of stress. Therefore, a reduction could indicate relaxation.

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.