(This excerpt from Are We Losing Our Need For Physical Touch? by Ray Williams originally appeared on psychologytoday.com. To read it in its entirety click on the link below.)
Has our hi-tech, media-socialized world lost something critical to our species—non-sexual human physical touch? Hasn’t human physical contact set us apart from other animals, and has helped us develop complex language, culture, thinking and emotional expression?
Two hundred years ago, a creature looking somewhat human, was sighted running through the forests of Southern France. Once captured, scientists determined he was age 11, and had run wild in the forests for much of his childhood. One of the fathers of psychiatry at that time, Phillipe Pinel, observed the child—named “Victor”—and concluded, erroneously, that the Victor was an idiot. A French physician attending Victor, disagreed with Pinel, concluding that the child had merely been deprived of human physical touch, which had retarded his social and developmental capacities.
We know from child developmental research that the absence of physical bonding and healthy attachment between an adult and child may result in life-long emotional disturbances. James W. Prescott, an American developmental psychologist, proposed that the origins of violence in society were related to the lack of mother-child bonding. Harry Harlow completed extensive studies on the relationship between affection and development.
In Communist Romania, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in a pathological program to raise the birth rate through “science,” established numerous orphanages. When the world was able to see these orphans after his overthrow, they were shocked to see severe underdevelopment in their social skills and values. The commonality for all these orphans was a lack of human physical touch, particularly of the loving kind.
Sharon K. Farber, writing in Psychology Today contends “being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction, and increasingly, many people are seeking out their own professional touchers and body arts teachers—chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, Rolfers, the Alexander-technique and Feldenkrais people, massage therapists, martial arts and T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructors. And some even wait in physicians’ offices for a physical examination for ailments that no organic cause—they wait to be touched.”
Daniel Keltner, (link is external) the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.”
Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that “studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.” Keltner also describes the research that shows the economic benefits of physical touch, citing his own recent study of NBA basketball teams, concluding that teams whose players touch each other more win more games.
Keltner also says that “touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch clams cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.”
Research at University of California’s School of Public Health found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from the doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.
Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, conducted a “neuroeconomics” study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, and increase the chances this persons will treat you “like family”, even it you’ve just met him or her. Zak argues “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.”
French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen reports in the journal Social Psychology of Education, t (link is external)hat when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class. Another recent study has found that when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.
Touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children: Some research by Tiffany Field suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.
According to research (link is external)conducted at the University of North Carolina, women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates and blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin.“Hugs strengthen the immune system…The gentle pressure on the sternum and the emotional charge this creates activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates and balances the body’s production of white blood cells, which keeps you healthy and disease free.”
Whether we get a friendly slap on the back, a sensual caress, or a loving kiss –interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. In fact, our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses, through stimulation of erogenous zones or nerve endings that respond to pain (Auvray, Myin, & Spence, 2010).
Although psychologists have learned a great deal about the significance of touch, the scientific inquiry of touch is still in its infancy. One important complexity that has yet to be addressed is that touch is inherently a multisensory experience. During interpersonal touch, we typically experience tactile stimulation, but also changes in warmth, along with changes in what we see, hear, and smell. Nevertheless, inputs from other senses can have independent effects. For instance, researchers Laurence A. Williams and John A. Bargh (link is external)found merely being in a warm room or holding a warm drink can make people feel closer to others compared to when they are in a cold room or holding a cold drink.
What does all this have to do with today’s world and workplace? Two things. The growing prevalence for human interaction through digital media—particularly for young people—versus personal physical contact, and the social and legal restrictions over physical contact in our schools and workplaces may have unintended negative consequences.
Josh Ackerman, a MIT psychologist, claims that people understand their world through physical experiences, and the first sense is through touch. He says that you can produce changes in peoples’ thoughts through different physical experiences. His study, published in Science (link is external)magazine, is the latest in the growing field of research called, “embodied cognition,” a field of research that supports the concept of mind-body connection.
In an article in Wired Magazine, (link is external) Brandon Keim contends, based on this embodied cognition research, that studies show children “are better at math when using their hands while thinking,” and “actors recall lines better when moving.
And when it comes to catching a woman’s interest, little beats a man’s winning smile and a touch on the arm. Studies have shown that a gentle brush of a woman’s arm can boost his chances in love and another study showed that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm a second or two before making the request.
In our desire to have a politically correct and safe social environment, or an environment of instant communication, have we lost sight of the most important aspect of human development and culture—physical touch?