We Could All Benefit from Touching Each Other a Bit More (No, Seriously)

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Each morning, just as I’m walking out the door in a rush to get the kids off to school, my husband stops me and pulls me in for a hug. He has done this every morning for as long as I can remember. Even when I’m running late and irritable, he’ll still drag me in for that bear hug. He says it makes him feel good. And despite my grumbling, I need that daily dose of physical affection. I guess it makes me feel good, too.

As it turns out, there is a neuroscientific reason behind that.

In recent years, there has been an abundance of revelations and scientific findings on the subject of touch sensors and their positive physical effect on the body, our social interactions, our self-awareness, and our understanding of the world around us.

In certain moments in life, we find that touch is the only language we know how to speak.

“Our skin is our largest sensory organ and touch is perhaps our very first sense to develop, from when we are in the womb,” says Dubai-based neurobiologist Dr. Carl Ramberg of the German Neuroscience Center (GNC). Even before birth, a fetus can sense touch, which is visible from ultrasounds that show fetuses shying away from pokes and nudges to their mother’s bellies.

In his book, Touch: The science of the hand, heart, and mind, David J. Linden, an American neuroscientist and best-selling author, talks in-depth about the powerful science behind touch and this sense’s astonishing ability to enlighten and stimulate us.

Here’s the basic idea: There are different sensors on the skin, each of which provides different pieces of information. These streams of information travel through the spinal cord and into different areas of the brain where they are then processed.

In layman’s terms, there are two different types of fibers on our skin that convey different messages. The first are fast-moving A-beta fibers, which communicate where a touch is located on the body. The second, slower fiber is called C-tactile fibers (CT fibers) and is found on hairy skin (such as the thigh or forearm, as opposed to the soles of the feet or palms where hair doesn’t naturally grow). This fiber, which is sensitive to gentle stroking or caresses, communicates the emotional quality of the touch received. When activated, these sensory nerve signals can interpret if the touch is emotionally positive or negative – meaning they can distinguish between a colleague’s grip and that of a lover’s (even if you were touched exactly the same way, for the same amount of time and with the same intensity by both people). The fibers can even distinguish between human touch (a massage, for example) and a non-human touch (like a massage chair).

A study by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh of the Universities of Colorado and Yale, respectively, found that when humans experience physical warmth on the skin (in their study, it was by holding a hot cup of coffee) it promotes an interpersonal sense of warmth – meaning touch can influence our impression of people. You’d think that it was our brain making all these connections, but it’s actually our touch sensors.

Why is this important? Because it proves that touch sensors are able to communicate the information necessary for proper social development – in other words, touch is mandatory for human development.

“The organization of our body’s touch circuits, from skin to nerves to brain, powerfully influences our lives. From consumer choice to sexual intercourse, from tool use to chronic pain to the process of healing, the genes, cells, and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience,” Linden asserts.

One of the best ways to learn about the importance of human touch is to observe those that are severely lacking it.

One of the best ways to learn about the importance of human touch is to observe those that are severely lacking it.

Thanks to the many studies done on the subject, the impact of physical touch deprivation in child development is very clear. One such famous study was conducted in 1997 by Mary Carlson (a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School) and her husband Felton Earl (a Harvard psychiatrist) to determine the effects that maternal and physical touch deprivation had on thousands of Romanian children that grew up in leaganes (orphanages). The results shed disturbing light on the subject; the kids never cried, bore blank facial expressions, were socially withdrawn, and had the same mannerisms found in socially deprived monkeys and chimpanzees.

Linden’s research points to more of the same. He says that severely touch-deprived orphans have a host of health and developmental problems, such as higher incidents of obesity and type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disease in adulthood, impaired growth, compromised immune-system function, and slowed motor and cognitive development, as well as anxiety, psychosis, and poor impulse control.

All this leads us to the understanding that physical touch is paramount to the growth and development of children. But what about the other senses? Are those born without the sense of sight, sound, or smell in danger of exhibiting the same poor cognitive development as those lacking the sense of touch?

Apparently not. Children who are born blind or hearing impaired may face challenges, but their overall physical and mental development is largely unaffected. This is not the case for children who are deprived of touch. Like the orphans in Romanian leaganes, their sense of self, their ability to regulate their mood and behavior, and their ability to learn and grow is negatively impacted due to a lack of touch.

Aamnah Husain, a counselor at GNC in Dubai, is quick to point out that touch deprivation isn’t limited to neglected orphans. Elderly people living in nursing homes also experience that. The same goes for teenager and young adults whose hands are superglued to technological devices and whose social interactions and relationships are increasingly conducted over messages and with the swipe of a finger. “The ubiquitous use of technology may be contributing to all of us experiencing less touch and leading to higher rates of loneliness and depression, especially among young adults,” she says.

While less touching leads to depression and other health issues, more touching has been found to improve our health.

Human touch increases the release of dopamine and serotonin in the body – neurotransmitters that regulate mood and relieve stress and anxiety, and control the pleasure regions of the brain. It also boosts the levels of oxytocin (also known as the love hormone, which is released during childbirth and intercourse or when people bond socially). Human touch also reduces the levels of stress hormones (like cortisol), increases immune function, soothes pain, and reduces high blood pressure and aggression, as well as calms the nervous system. It can also promote trust and enhance performance in team sports.

Touch also has the ability to heal pain.

In his book, Linden explained how, in understaffed orphanages, 20 to 60 minutes per day of gentle massage and limb movement was found to reverse the negative effects of touch deprivation. Babies receiving touch therapy gained weight more quickly and had fewer infections, better sleep, and decreased crying. They also progressed more rapidly in developing motor coordination and cognitive skills.

A research group at UC Berkeley led by Michael Kraus, Cassy Huang, and Dacher Keltner carried out a test entitled ‘Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: an ethological study of the NBA’ in 2010. It showed that NBA teams that marked successful plays with celebratory touches such as fist bumps, high tens, and leaping shoulder bumps early on in the season had a higher performance throughout the season for both the players and the teams.

Touch also has the ability to heal pain.

This may explain why touch therapy and Reiki therapy – an alternative form of healing that involves the practitioner using their palms to transfer energy to their patient – has gained so much popularity over the years.

“Hearing, seeing, smelling… these are the senses we think of in the context of our own survival, yet somehow the sense of touch has been underestimated for a long time. Physical contact plays a vital role in our physical and psychological health,” says Omer Khan, NLP Master Practitioner and Reiki Master & SRT Practitioner at Miracles Wellness Center in Dubai.

Khan references a study, entitled ‘The Effect of Reiki on Pain: A meta-analysis’ by Demir Dogan. Using randomized controlled clinical trials involving 212 participants divided into two groups – a Reiki group and a control group – it found that the Reiki group’s VAS pain score (a validated, subjective measure of acute and chronic pain) was significantly lower than that of the control group.

“The beauty of Reiki is that it works on all levels; physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual,” says Khan. “It is gaining wider acceptance in the medical field. Hospitals are incorporating it into their roster of patient services in the US and Europe”.

While there is still so much to learn about touch sensors, what is glaringly obvious is that touch has a huge impact on our physical, emotional, and psychological health and wellbeing. Without it, we would not be able to make sense of the things we feel or encounter. And in certain moments in life, we find that it is the only language we know how to speak.

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