The Underutilized Power of Touch
Written by Michael Richardson | Healthy-Mag.com
Touch is the red-headed step child of our senses when it comes to human interaction. Look at me, hear me speak, smell my fragrance, but don’t you dare touch me. Blame our litigious habits, our increasingly electronic communication or our girthy American personal bubbles. Whatever the case, this touch deprivation is quietly robbing us of a better life, researchers say.
Why Touch Matters
A child benefits from an approving pat on the shoulder. The sad know the value of a gentle touch on the arm. But quantifying and confirming the real benefits of touch is somewhat difficult, though researchers are now confident in a number of things.
- Lowers stress levels. It reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn translates to lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and an immune system boost.
- Increases levels of feel-good hormones, like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
- Can turn off our fear responses.
- Decreases pain levels.
- Soothes depression.
- Deepens relationships.
- Generates cooperation.
Oxytocin: The Bonding Hormone
This hormone and neurotransmitter, once thought to be crucial only for babies and mothers, is now believed to be a super hormone that helps with everything from illness recovery, life length, addiction recovery, depression recovery and anxiety prevention. Some say it is essential for love.
How do we get it? Oxytocin is released through touch: hand holding, hugs, massage, etc. Hertenstein says this hormone lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to others.
Lack of touch seriously impacts one’s life, according to developmental psychologist and nonverbal communication expert Matthew J. Hertenstein, PhD, of DePauw University.
“Touch in our lives is incredibly important, on par with the ingestion of fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Can one get through life without fruits and vegetables? Yes, but one’s diet would not be complete and healthy. In the same way, a lack of touch leads to nonoptimal health.”
Researchers have investigated many different facets of non-sexual touch. A French psychologist found that when teachers pat their students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class. And, interestingly, NBA teams who touch each other more win more games, are more efficient and better performers, one study found.
One field of medicine that has grasped on to the importance of touch is pregnancy and infant care. Many trained in dealing with pregnancy, delivery and newborn care are trained to use touch. In one landmark study, preterm infants who received touch therapy gained nearly 50 percent more weight than premature infants who received standard treatment.
The physical benefits of touch are coupled with touch’s incredible powers of communication, be it a pat on the back or a touch on the arm.
These touches “are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion,” writes Dacher Keltner, social interaction expert at UC Berkeley.
Dacher and his graduate student conducted a study where they had two strangers separated from each other by a barrier. One person stuck his or her arm through a barrier and waited. The other person was given a list of emotions, and was told to convey those emotions by touching the arm of the other person.
The odds of guessing the emotion being conveyed were one in eight. But nearly sixty percent of the time, the person being touched guessed correctly. The emotions conveyed were things like gratitude, anger, love and fear.
Sidenote(italics): Men had trouble understanding when a woman communicated anger through touch, and women couldn’t understand when a man was conveying compassion through touch.(end sidenote)
Keltner says studies on facial and vocal communication have revealed touch to be more accurate when it comes to people being able to differentiate between emotions being expressed. In fact, he calls touch our richest means of communication.
Getting More Touch
If touch is so beneficial to our wellbeing, it seems like we would simply seek touch more. Apparently, that’s easier said than done. In fact, a word of caution—Don’t go touch crazy after you finish reading this article. Nobody likes a space-invader.
The benefits of touch are increasingly undeniable, says Keltner, but everyone is different.
“While most people like some amount of touch in their social lives,” he says, “there are those (I’d estimate 10-15%) who don’t and there are those who are less touchy. So like any kind of language, it’s important that we adapt our style of touch to the person receiving it. For those who like touch less, tone it down. Instead of fist bumps and high fives, shift to nice handshakes. Instead of the bear hug shift to the pat on the back.”
When touch is done with care and respect, Keltner says, it is almost always good for trust, collaboration and good will.
Marcia Baczynski took this idea to the next level. A relationship coach and sex educator in New York City, Baczynski wanted to provide an outlet for nonsexual touch, in recognition of its importance. She organized the first Cuddle Party, a place of nourishment, shared affection and communication, without sex. Now Cuddle Party is an international organization, with branches in Australia, Canada, England and Denmark. It’s an outlet that allows touch to be about “human being who cares about other human beings,” their website says.
The American Bubble
Walking with your arm around someone’s shoulder in America often signifies a pair, a romantic relationship, but not so in other countries. Consider the study by one researcher who observed the amount of times friends touched each other at a café. This is how many times friends touched, by country, in one hour:
If a cuddle party doesn’t sound like your scene, try a massage. Most of the physical benefits of touch can come from a massage, an effect that is well documented.
Try to get about 10-15 minutes of touch a day, researchers say. This may seem daunting to some, but touch can be an integral and appropriate part of so many activities. One person may use a hug to communicate compassion, while another uses a pat to communicate approval. Touching is intimidating because many of us don’t naturally do it, and we often don’t know how. Family and friends are a great place to turn for the amazing benefits of touch, yet too often we don’t utilize that resource.
Touching makes you a better communicator, deepens your relationships and provides a bevy of physical benefits. It’s all at your fingertips.