The Amazing Power of Touch - February 2016

Hands touching

Excepts By Dacher Keltner September 29, 2010 and Rick Chillot - Psychology Today, Brain In The News May 2013

The complexity of communication that happens when one human touches another is starting to be better understood and you can use it to improve many areas of your life.

Non-human primates spend about 10 to 20 percent of their waking day grooming each other. If you go to various other countries, people spend a lot of time in direct physical contact with one another-much more than we do.
This has been well-documented. In the 1960s pioneering psychologist Sidney Jourard, studied the conversations of friends in different parts of the world as they sat in a caf together. He observed these conversations for the same amount of time in each of the different countries.
In England, the two friends touched each other zero times. In the United States, in bursts of enthusiasm, friends touched each other twice. But in France, the number shot up to 110 times per hour. And in Puerto Rico, those friends touched each other 180 times!

We like the English and USA tend to keep our hands to ourselves. Religious people touch less than agnostics and this is compounded by how our society has become so litigious. Other research has revealed what we lose when we suppress our natural inclination to touch others when we communicate.

The benefits start from birth. Tiffany Field, a leader in the field of touch, found that preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who'd received standard medical treatment. Historically, an overwhelming percentage of humans babies in orphanages where caretakers starved them of touch have failed to grow to their expected height or weight, and have shown behavioural problems.

"To touch can be to give life," said Michelangelo, and he was absolutely right.

From this frontier of touch research, we know thanks to neuroscientist Edmund Rolls that touch activates the brain's orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion.

There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body's vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka "the love hormone."

Hertenstein proved that touch is a powerful communication tool on its own. He had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger. "Despite our caution around touching, we come equipped with the ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness with accuracy as high as 87%.

Touch can even have economic effects, promoting trust and generosity. Experiments show a simple pat on the back influences strangers to share a limited resource rather than compete for it. Seemingly insignificant touches by waitresses yield bigger tips and people spend more if they are touched by a store greeter. Strangers are more likely to help you if you touch them when you make a request. Students evaluate librarians more favourably if touched when being assisted. Most interesting of all most people didn't recall being touched in these social interactions. They just sense a stronger connection.

Just how powerful is touch? NBA basket ballers who had the most on-court touches win more games! A study by French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen has found that when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class. 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.

Given all these findings, it only makes sense to think up ways to incorporate touch into different form of therapy. "Touch therapy" or "massage therapy" may sound like some weird Berkeley idea, but it's got hard science on its side. It's not just good for our muscles; it's good for our entire physical and mental health. Proper uses of touch truly have the potential to transform the practice of medicine-and they're cost effective to boot. For example, studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer's disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.

Tiffany Field has found that massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression-in the women and their spouses alike. Research at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health has found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Cuddling with your partner, pet, friends or children does something surprising to your health. Cuddling makes us happier and healthier helping curb depression. Cuddling can also strengthen our immune system and calms us so we are less anxious. It also helps us sleep better.

Nonsexual touching like hugging or handholding is just as important as sex itself in keeping your relationship healthy. "Touching is probably the most definitive way to let other people know you're in a relationship,'" Goldsmith says. In the long run, the more you touch your mate, the more you'll feel comfortable with each other. Couples that are in the habit of cuddling and snuggling often are far more likely to be in healthier relationships.

What does all this mean for you? Well it doesn't mean you should turn around and grope your neighbour or start to invade the personal space of people around you. You may however want to take a moment longer to touch and hug your partner, friends, pets and family more often. The science of touch convincingly suggests that we're wired to-we need to-connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life's greatest joys and deepest comforts.

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