Human beings as social creatures, are born with an innate sense of wanting and needing to touch, initially as a primary means of learning and later communication. It is the FIRST sensory system to develop, and continues to function after sight and hearing have failed, thus helping us stay ‘in touch’ with our world. The minute we see something new what do we want to do? Touch it of course! It is so hard for a growing child NOT to touch things around them; mothers across the world echo the same refrain …. “Look, but don’t touch!”, something that is nigh impossible for the inquisitive child.
Touch is so important to our sense of wellbeing that a lack OF touch has been scientifically proven to impede emotional and physical growth. Touch is just as important in the animal kingdom; for example, rat pups cannot survive without their mother’s life-giving licks. New born puppies are licked into life by the bitch stimulating them to breathe. Even monkeys become aggressive when they are deprived of touch. Elephants will mourn over their dead, often touching the carcass with their trunks almost reverently, before moving on, as though it were a last gesture of ‘goodbye’.
Touch soothes a baby when words cannot be comprehended by the small infant. A touch from a friend in a time of need comforts their heart. A loving touch between lovers communicate more than words ever can. When a baby is born, the trauma of birth is lessened when the infant is immediately placed on the mother’s belly to encourage the bonding process. Research has found that babies who are carried and touched MORE, cry LESS than those babies who are left to cry without comfort. When a mother responds to her baby who cries for attention, that mother communicates to her child that he or she is very important and that her needs will be met. Failing to do this can result in the infant subconsciously learning that their needs may not be met and this later has a bearing on their innate sense of self worth. People who believe that responding to your baby every time it cries will create a spoilt child, are completely mis-informed. Rather, you are communicating to that child that he or she is loved.
It does seem that people who grow up in homes where touch was not prevalent later find they are less than comfortable when they are touched, and find that they themselves battle to communicate their deep feelings in the form of hugging and touching. Even little boys need to be hugged and comforted when they are upset. (This nonsense that ‘boys don’t cry’ really is absolute rubbish. If anything, boys should be taught to be comfortable with their emotions and feel comfortable to expressing them. Your son will tell YOU when the time is right to back off on those motherly cuddles and hugs as he grows into a young man. But your affirming touch will still be required. That, however, is the subject of another article!) In fact, any child that is not held and touched enough will NOT grow into his or her full potential. But what is true for children with respect to touch, holds true for adults also.
In order to thrive, newborns need as much touch as they do food. By now, every one is familiar with studies in hospitals and orphanages which have reported that infants who are deprived of touch, lose weight, thrive less and can even become ill and eventually die. Even prem babies who are touched more gain weight faster and generally do better overall than those prem babies who receive less attention. In our techno-gizmo world, touch is becoming ever more important in our lives. MORE. Not less.
The Karger Gazette writes: “The power of touch in young children was demonstrated in a study in which one group of preschool children in a pediatric ward was given only verbal comfort when they showed distress, while the other was given simultaneous verbal and tactile comfort, including holding, patting, rocking, stroking and being offered a pacifier. Only 7 of the 40 verbal comforts succeeded in quieting the children, but 53 of the 60 tactile-verbal comforts were successful”
Touch includes many tactile senses: muscle movement, pressure, pain and temperature. All of these stimuli depending on their source, communicate good or ‘bad’ messages to the brain and body. It has been said that the skin is the ‘Mother of all senses’. Your skin is in fact the largest ‘organ’ in your body which is why massage is such a wonderful tool in the way it helps the body to de-stress. Massage affects the hypothalamic area of the brain, decreasing the stress hormones and increasing the ‘happy hormones’, the endorphins, thus creating a greater sense of inner peace and wellbeing which in turn, stimulates alertness.
In one study, volunteers of a medical school were massaged for only 15 minutes a day for a month during their lunch breaks. Their EEG patterns were recorded before, during and after the session. Their alpha and beta wave levels decreased, whilst the theta waves increased. After the massage, tasks took significantly less time to complete and even accuracy increased. We don’t need coffee breaks. We need massage breaks!
Some cultures are definitely more touch-sensitive than others. Out of the French, British and Americans, the French emerge as the top ‘touchy-feelies’. The French also show lower levels of aggression compared to their American counterparts. Something to be said perhaps for the basis of that French lover archetype?! Regrettably, the American’s have to be mindful of their over-the-top litigious environment in which they live, and no doubt this has great bearing on their FEAR to touch. As a result, this lack of even ‘safe touching’ is resulting in a touch-deprived youth.
In the words of Saul Schanberg: “Touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damned near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch. We always knew that, but we never realized that it had a biological basis. If touch did not feel good, there would be no species, parenthood or survival. The mother would not touch her baby in the right way unless the mother felt pleasure in doing it. If we did not like the feel of touching and patting one another we would not have had sex. Those animals that did more touching instinctively produced offspring, which survived and had more energy, and so passed on their tendency to touch which became even stronger. We forget that touch is not only basic to our species but the key to it.”
There are many complementary therapies that are based on the premise of ‘touch heals’. The ‘laying on of hands’ in some way or form goes back thousands of years in our human history. Today these touch-based therapies can be found in many different modalities, notable examples including Specialised Kinesiology (Touch for Health), Applied Kinesiology (Chiropractics), Reflexology. Acupuncture and Acupressure techniques, Bowen Therapy, Osteopathy, BodyTalk, Reiki and Cranio-Sacral Therapy. Most of these work to stimulate the immune system through touch, stimulating healing in the source of imbalance in the body. Regretably, due to time constraints, many modern-day doctors don’t have the time to really ‘touch base’ with their patients and this crucial aspect of ‘safe touch’ in a patient’s healing process is completely forgotten.
A doctor writes …
A patient who changed my practice
The importance of touch
In a busy neurosurgical practice the patients are presentedby the residents after examination. Often the diagnosis is apparent,as in the case of the 80 year old woman who had severe trigeminalneuralgia and who came from a remote village in south India.From the way she walked in, guarded her face against the fanbreeze, and showed painful spasms of the face, the diagnosiswas clear. I explained the disease to the woman and suggesteda trial of medicines before we thought about any surgical intervention.
As I handed over the prescription she had a strange, sad lookon her face and, while taking the prescription in her hand,she observed that this was not going to help her. I was rather surprised,and began to explain that the drug was very useful for her condition.She cut me short and exclaimed that I had not placed my handon her, touched her, or examined her. How could any drug ortreatment be effective without the healing touch of a doctor?I was humbled at the great faith of this old woman and realisedthe error in my approach. My apologies were brushed aside andafter I examined her pulse, she left with a smile.
Since that day I have understood the faith that patients inIndia have in the healing touch and I never fail to touch andexamine them and whenever feasible give them a gentle pat on shoulderin a gesture of reassurance.
B Ramamurthi, neurosurgeon, Madras
Many people fear losing their sense of sight, or their sense of hearing. Not many people give much thought to the consequences of losing their sense of touch. But here’s the thing; major somesthetic loss cannot be compensated for by your sight for one thing. If you lose your sense of touch, hand dexterity is severely impaired, and even walking can be an issue.
Let us also not forget the ‘other’ side of the touch equation … we often say ‘that person touched my life’. Touch does not just have to be physical. It can be metaphysical, and is of no less important. How we interact with others and how that interaction affects another often leads to greater or lesser consequences. Words of kindness, compassionate gestures, deeds of service are all means whereby we are able to affect the life of someone else, often being a catalyst for greatness beyond anything we could ever imagine ourselves. I think of Anne Sullivan, lifelong friend and teacher to the great Helen Keller. Anne’s innovative way of communicating to Helen through touch, Helen being deaf and blind since she was two, enabled Helen to reach her full potential even as a physically challenged human being in a world vastly different to the one in which we live today, relative to the resources available then for disabled people. We don’t all get to be Anne Sullivan’s but each of us, in our own way, can touch the life of another by a simple smile, a common courtesy, sharing a joke or just finding such joy in our own lives that we infectiously affect all those around us!
In these few moments I have ‘touched’ on just a few of the aspects of the importance of touch. Ask yourself, how are you going to ‘touch’ someone’s life today?
- Triplett J, Arneson S: The use of verbal and tactile comfort to alleviate distress in young hospitalized children. Res Nurs Health 1979;126:101–110.
- Field T: Preschoolers in America are touched less and are more aggressive than preschoolers in France. Early Child Dev Care 1999;151:11–17.
- Field TM, Ironson G, Pickens J, Nawrocki T, Fox N, Scafadi F, Burman I, Schanberg S, Kuhn C: Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG patterns of altertness and math computations.
- Int J Neurosci 1996;86:197–205.