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The Power of Touch: a Bidirectional Gift

The Power of Touch: a Bidirectional Gift 1024 682 BodyWHealth

Do you cry in airports? I do. If you look around you in both arrival and departure terminals, you will see touching displays of emotion. Researchers have documented almost twice as much physical contact between people in airports as in shopping malls. Touch not only conveys emotion more powerfully, but also drives health and happiness.

Nature has gifted us with five senses. Touch is the first to develop. It plays a critical role in social interactions throughout our life, and we start early. Our first lessons in loving start at birth (some say before) with the kissing and cuddling most of us receive from our parents. Touch is associated with “pro-social” emotions that ensure the wellbeing of our species. It drives trust and cooperation, and is considered primary societal glue in all primate species. In order to drive nurturing and collaborative behavior, Mother Nature designed rich individual incentives for these tactile instincts. She rewards touchiness with a host of pleasurable feelings and long-term health, reinforcing our natural tactile bias.

To understand the power of touch, we will follow the biological journey of a peripheral sensory experience through the body to the pleasure centers in the brain, and then outwards to the practical benefits they confer on us.

Touch begins in the skin, the largest sensory organ in the body, comprising almost one fifth of an adult’s body weight. There are several different types of sensory receptors in the skin, enabling the owner to perceive a range of sensations. These specialized receptors each detect texture, shape, motion, vibration, pressure, pain or temperature. The skin is richly endowed with sensory receptors, especially areas such as the fingertips, face and erogenous zones. When a receptor is stimulated, it rapidly shuttles the message up the sensory nerves to the brain.

The brain then plays an extraordinary role in evaluating the sensation. First, it differentiates between interpersonal (involving someone else), intrapersonal (yourself) and passive touch (from an inert object). Secondly, the brain integrates and analyzes all the different sensory messages coming in from the skin at any moment. So, for example, with your eyes closed you are able to feel when you kiss your daughters warm, soft, smooth forehead rather than her warm, soft, smooth hair. Finally, it must integrate the sensation of touch with other sensory stimuli it receives to draw a final conclusion on the overall experience. A firm handshake from a colleague with friendly eyes will be evaluated differently from the same handshake associated with angry eyes.

Once the brain has processed the sensation in its full context, it stimulates the release of several powerful hormones. In particular, the body produces dopamine, endorphin and oxytocin in the presence of favorable touch. These hormones make us feel good, encouraging the nurturing and collaborative social interactions that provoke them. These highly desirable “feel-good” hormones also have important individual health benefits. Empathetic touch has been shown to reduce blood pressure and limit heart rate increases in stressful situations. It reduces stress and anxiety directly, as well as dampening the stress hormone response. The stress hormone cortisol has a negative impact on immune function over time. Frequent touch, such as that enjoyed in massage therapy, has been demonstrated to strengthen the immune system. Importantly, these benefits are accrued by those being touched and those doing the touching. Finally, there is good evidence to show that touch reduces pain sensitivity, a phenomenon of both practical and therapeutic value.

There are many experiments that demonstrate the applied benefits of touchiness. Mothers with post-natal depression are encouraged to massage their babies because it has been shown to improve their depression. Adult tactile affection proves to be highly correlated with overall relationship success and partner satisfaction. The touch of an empathetic caregiver improves patient adherence to medical advice. Similarly, the kindness shown in an appropriate touch from a salesperson improves consumer trust. Waiters and waitresses that touch their guests (again appropriately) get tipped better. Touch has even been shown to correlate with sporting success – touchy teams win more games!

Some of what we know about the benefits of touch comes from people deprived of tactile stimulation. Some sad early experiments with animals highlighted the physical and emotional retardation that accompanies sensory deprivation. More recent research shows that children deprived of tactile support are often below average in both social and cognitive ability in later life. It is no accident that we use the term “tactless” and the phrase “out of touch” as negative statements.

There is wide cultural variation in social norms regarding touch. There is strong debate about our right to touch and be touched, especially in the USA today. Fear of litigation and stigmatization, which arose to protect individuals against abuse, limits our tactile interactions. Dr. Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute, in Miami, Florida claims that we suffer the consequences of this tactile deprivation, something she calls “touch hunger”. As a physician, I deeply appreciated the power of my healing hands. This experience and my insight into the underlying science have me strongly supportive of the argument for more rather than less touch, with two precautions. First, mutual consent must prevail; both parties must be entirely comfortable with the physical expression of an emotional message. Second, we must learn to listen with our hands. People quickly show their comfort or discomfort to touch. We must respect their wishes.

Greeting cards often appeal to our emotions through images of happy animals enjoying physical proximity. Cute puppies snuggle together. Loving cats lick and nuzzle their kittens. Mischievous bear cubs wrestle and play together. Monkeys groom each other affectionately. Our affinity for these messages underpins our belief in the value of touch, a powerful tool on the road to BodyWHealth.

Have fun,