The Science of Touch


If you could see me on my soapbox you would hear me say in a loud voice, full of conviction that “we are hard-wired for connection in this world” and that “touch is a vital part of that connection”.  Okay, you might say, but where’s the proof?

From birth, infants need it to thrive [1], adults use it to relay affection, comfort, support and love and the elderly, past their sexual prime, find it the only way to receive human contact[2].  Without it, developmental delays can occur, behavioural problems surface in children and adolescence, adults become rigid and for the most part don’t even know that this is part of the reason why.

Physiologically, oxytocin (a hormone) is released when touch is administered. Among many other functions, it forms critical parental connections in developmental years, promotes social bonding and enhances trust [3].So WHY does this matter? Well, here’s a little science. It has been shown that massage can increase levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) while at the same time reducing another hormone (ACTH) that is linked to stress (high blood pressure, high sugar levels and the inability to self-regulate back to a “physiologically-relaxed state”) [4]. Do you need anymore reason to book your next massage in this high-paced, always busy and often stressed out world?!?

So while you are having your therapeutic massage that addresses your rotator cuff injury, the arthritis in your knees, that strained low back or the repetitive strain in our wrist and elbow; SO MUCH MORE IS GOING ON! Reassurance, support, compassion, acceptance, unwinding, comfort, solace, peace, happiness. A sense of well-being.   That is of course, if the therapist is applying the sort of touch that conveys this message.

It has been demonstrated that touch, without seeing the face of the person touching another, can relay certain emotions such as anger, love, gratitude and disgust [5]. So to bring this back to my soapbox and the idea that touch is vital to humans- it is paramount that we experience compassionate touch in our lives; a touch that makes you feel safe, cared for, supported, at ease, grounded, understood and accepted just the way you are. I listen with my hands just as much as I speak with them.

In my next newsletter instalment I’d like to take my passion for touch to another level when we consider those that have had a negative experience with touch whether due to childhood abuse, domestic violence or rape. Everything I have just described above is shattered for them. So how does one relate in the world to other people, partners and children, when one might find it difficult to fully embrace another? How tragic to not feel safe when being touched.

1. How Important is Physical Touch in Infants.  Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infant-touch/

2. Montague, Ashley. Touching: The Significance of the Human Skin. 1986. Harper Collins.

3. http://psychcentral.com/lib/about-oxytocin/0001386

4.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251939

5. Hertenstein et alt. Touch communicates distinct emotions. 2006 Aug;6(3):528-33 PubMed

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