“why touch is important”

The Importance of Touch

By Michael Orlans

As I have previously stated, all human beings are born with a pre-wired program for attachment. However, this ability must be activated by specific cues from the environment. If not activated the ability to attachment properly lies dormant. This stimulation can occur any time in life. In addition to smiles another primary trigger of attachment is touch.

All warm blooded animals are born with an innate need to be touched and stroked affectionately. Research has confirmed that the handling or gentling of mammals early in life results in increased weight gain, activity, and resilience under stress (Simon 1976). Touch for the human baby serves both physical and emotional functions. Somatic stimulation begins in labor when uterine contractions activate principal organ systems of the fetus. Human babies actually die from lack of touch. In the nineteenth century, most institutionalized infants in the United States died or marasmus (“wasting away”). Institutions surveyed in 1915 reported that a majority of infants under the age of 2 had died due to failure to thrive, related to the lack of touch and affection (Chapin 1915). Prescott (1971) found that deprivation of touch and movement contributed to later emotional problems. He also found that cultures in which physical affection towards infants was high had low levels of adult aggression, but cultures where affectionate touch was low had high adult aggression. More recent research on contact comfort between mother and infant revealed interesting but not surprising findings. Low socioeconomic-status mothers were given either a soft baby carrier or a plastic infant seat to use on a daily basis. At 3 ½ months of age, the soft carrier infants looked more frequently at their mothers and cried less; these mothers were more responsive to their babies’ vocalizations. At 13 months, these infants were more likely to be securely attached (83%) compared with the infant seat group (30%) (Ainsfield et al. 1990). Warm and caring touch lowers stress hormones (e.g., cortisol), and stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which enhances security, trust, and secure attachment (Field 2010).

Humans are pre-wired to be able to interpret the touch of others. Studies have shown that people have an innate ability to decode emotions with touch alone. Hundreds of participants, between the ages of 18 and 36, were able to communicate eight distinct emotions via touch – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy – with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent (Hertenstein et al. 2009). Touch seems to be a more nuanced and effective means of communicating emotions than even facial expressions or tone of voice. Touch definitely promotes more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connection with others. Recent studies have found that people buy more if they are gently touched by a store greeter, strangers are more likely to provide help if touch accompanies the request, and waitresses receive bigger tips when they briefly touched customers. Most of the people in these studies did not remember being touched, but when asked they reported that they liked the person and felt some positive connection (Guerrero et al. 2007). Touch-oriented doctors, teachers, and managers consistently receive higher ratings. They communicate warmth caring and support (Anderson 2008). Of course, context matters; society has rules about whom we can touch, where, and when. Touch can be appropriate and safe, or inappropriate and unsafe. Different people as well as cultures have varying comfort levels and standards regarding touch. There are significant cultural variations in comfort with touch. Some cultures are more liberal about touching (e.g. Greek, Puerto Rican), and others less so (e.g. German, British). Compared with other cultures, Americans are touch-deprived. Cross cultural research has shown that the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of casual touch in the world. Americans average two times per hour. French parents touch their children three times more than Americans. Puerto Ricans have one of the highest rates, about 180 times per hour.

Touch is the first sense to develop in humans and is often the last to fade. Touch is a free and effective prescription for wellness. It lowers blood pressure and boots blood levels of oxytocin while reducing stress hormones. For millions of years the communication transmitted through touch has been the more powerful way to establish a human relationship (Montagu 1986). Secure attachments involve loving and caring touch. Without touch, children develop failure to thrive and can die; with abusive touch and/or little loving and nurturing touch, children develop severe biopsychosocial problems and an aversion to the very touch and closeness they desperately need.

We live in a society where therapists are not supposed to touch their clients; teachers are discouraged from touching their students. Touch is often viewed as a taboo in our culture. Despite a growing body of evidence that touch is good for both the body and soul, professionals want to protect themselves from being accused of inappropriate touch. Touch is one of our earliest and most basic form of healing. Researchers at the Touch Research Institute conclude that a daily dose of touch can be as essential to good health as diet and exercise. Therapeutic touch can be reassuring, comforting, supportive, and down-regulate anxiety and arousal. We incorporate therapeutic touch in our treatment and parenting programs. Dyads (e.g. couples, parent-child, siblings) are encouraged to hold hands at opportune times during Attachment Communication Training to enhance caring, support, and attachment. Physical contact from parent to child (e.g. gentle touch of the arm) is encouraged during Limbic Activation Process (LAP) to communicate nurturance, empathy, and love. Parents are taught to touch their children gently and sensitively on the hands, arms, or shoulders during conversation to foster caring and connection. The best way to provide comfort is via touch, especially when someone needs consoling. The language of touch can deeply communicate our feelings and inspire connection.