When was the last time you touched, or were touched, by somebody you love? The artist Michelangelo declared that “to touch can be to give life.” It turns out he was right.
In recent years, various studies have successfully documented the incredible benefits that come from touch, on an emotional and physical level. It’s fundamental to our communication, bonding, and our health.
The benefits start from when we’re born.
A leading researcher in the field of touch, Tiffany Field, found that premature babies who received three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy every day for five to ten days gained 47 percent more weight than other premature infants who received standard medical treatment.
Other research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney similarly found that rats whose mothers licked and groomed them a lot when they were infants grew up to be calmer and more resilient to stress; and they had a stronger immune system.
Consider the converse.
Decades of research has demonstrated that an overwhelming percentage of babies in orphanages who weren’t regularly touched by their caretakers failed to grow to their expected height or weight, and they showed behavioural problems.
Touch has a powerful, healing effect. Massage therapy can reduce pain in pregnant women; and alleviate prenatal depression in men and women alike.
Consider another experiment, where participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they were waiting for a fMRI brain scan did not show any signs of threat and stress, compared to those who did not have the benefit of their partner’s touch. Those who weren’t touched perceived the threat, while those in the former group did not.
Other studies also 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.
Did you know that touch can even affect the rate at which your wounds heal?
When you’re involved in an argument with a loved one, it’s been scientifically proven that your injuries can take a day longer to heal. If you’re married and don’t get on with your spouse, your wounds could take up to two days longer to heal!
This is because we’re deeply affected by touch. It imbues us with feelings of safety and trust, and it soothes us. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress; and a simple touch can trigger the release of oxytocin, otherwise known as “the love hormone.”
The mere act of hugging your partner can lower their blood pressure. Women who receive the most hugs were found to have much higher levels of oxytocin in their blood stream. Oxytocin is associated with bonding; and studies show that when it’s put into wounds in animals, the injuries heal much more quickly. In other words, hugs heal.
Even something as simple as getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor has been found to boost the survival rates of patients with complex diseases.
Touch is instrumental in education too.
It was discovered that when teachers gave their students a friendly pat, those students were three times as likely to speak up in class; and when librarians patted the hand of a student checking out a book, the student was also more likely to come back.
Touch builds cooperative relationships. It can have an effect on the way people work together in groups, or the way they react to strangers. Research shows that people tend to tip a waitress more after she lightly touches a person’s hand or shoulder. Even more striking, NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more have been found to win more games.
Nonhuman primates are on to something. They spend about ten to twenty percent of their time grooming each other. They use such grooming to build alliances.
How do you use your power of touch? Do you use it to send and reinforce positive messages?
We can convey a lot through our touch. People who’re physically touched by us can differentiate between the different kinds of emotions we are conveying, including love, gratitude, and compassion amongst others, without us ever having to say a word.
Touching is good for romantic relationships and while this may seem obvious, a surprising number of couples spend years together but rarely touch each other. A simple pat on the back or a caress on the arm ÔÇô little acts like this all add up to a more satisfying relationship.
There are instances when touching may not be considered appropriate, such as excessive petting of students, or even children in general. Use your common sense to discern whether your touch is appropriate, or even welcome. Pouncing on a near stranger with a bear hug and proclaiming it’s good for them could land you in hot water.
But don’t miss out on the life-giving power of touch because you’re too scared, or are unsure of how even people close to you, might react.
Even if don’t have the habit of touching your family or friends; and don’t consider yourself to be a particularly affectionate person, you can learn to adopt this behaviour – the benefits are enormous.
Start incorporating touch into your life.
Convey love through touch to the people who mean the most to you, or schedule regular massages for yourself. Massage, or “Touch therapy,” is not just good for our muscles; it’s good for our physical and mental health.
Being touched can not only cut the levels of stress hormones in our bodies, which increases our risk to a number of diseases, it’s also been found to increase our levels of serotonin, “the feel-good hormone.”
So avoid what some psychologists have termed ‘touch hunger.’
Touch is good. Or, in the words of Dacher Keltner, who studies the science of touch:
“We’re wired toÔÇöwe need toÔÇöconnect 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.”