Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Remarkable Power of Touch

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The Remarkable Power of Touch

The power of touch is profound – whether it is an accidental glazing from a stranger, the strong kneading of a professional masseur, a gentle hold from someone close, a reassuring squeeze of the hand, an ‘I see you’ caress, an encouraging touch on the back, a quick kiss on the forehead or one that is slower, more tender and more anticipated. It can strengthen connections, heal, communicate, influence and soothe. When the touch is cold and brittle, it can also widen the distance between two people. If it came with gorgeous packaging and retail hype, we’d be lining up to do the deal. Fortunately, we don’t need to do any of that. 

Our skin is our largest organ and would measure about two metres if it was laid flat. Given that our bodies are precious real estate, for something to take up this much room, there must be a good reason for it. Yes it’s to stop infections and yes it’s to stop our important bits and pieces falling out but there is another reason. It is the pathway for touch – one of our most powerful and important functions. For long-term wellbeing, touch is as important as food and security.

In one tender squeeze there are so many things that can be said. ‘You’ll be okay.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ ‘Yeah, I’m worried about it too.’ ‘It’s scary isn’t it.’ ‘You’re freaking amazing.’ ‘Come on. Talk to me.’ ‘What’s happening with us?’ ‘I love you.’ When it’s from the right person in the right context, we rarely have to guess the words – the words become irrelevant anyway. Instantly we can feel closer, calmer and more understood. 

Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It is most likely no accident then, that the lack of connection, either emotional or physical is discussed in terms of touch – tactless, lost touch with, out of touch.

Of course, touch can also hurt. With very good reason, we have made moves to protect ourselves and those we care about from the type of touch that can have catastrophic consequences. There are strong boundaries around the appropriate use of touch and this is a good thing – we need to feel safe. ‘Safe touch’ though, doesn’t have to mean ‘no touch’.

In discouraging the wrong touch, we need to be careful not to make ourselves vulnerable to ‘touch hunger’, a phenomenon described by Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. When we experience a lack of physical contact, fundamental human needs are left unmet, particularly around our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Research has found clear cultural differences in interpersonal touch. In a widely cited study, psychologist Sidney Jourard observed friends chatting to each other in cafes across the world. Jourard found that in the space of an hour, people in Puerto Rico touched each other an average of 180 times. In Paris, it was 110 times. Jet over to Florida and the averaged dropped to twice an hour. In London the average was zero.

There are plenty of good reasons not to touch every stranger we see – there’s touch hunger, and then there’s creepy – but when we hold back on too much, we miss out on too much.

What do we need to know? The unspoken rules.

We need touch. We need the comfort, the connection the security and the powerful emotional and physical health benefits that come by being touched in safe and appropriate ways. An abundance of research has found that the benefits of touch don’t stop at the people we feel safe folding into. Less than one second of safe, interpersonal touch, such as a hand to the back or the shoulder can influence health and behaviour in remarkable ways. But how to do this safely.

Not all touch is created equal. Research has found certain rules and ‘no-fly zones’ when it comes to interpersonal touch.  We all have a zone of personal space that feels comfortable but the distance of that no-fly zone depends on culture and social norms, length of touch, context, relationship and where the touch is. According to research:

  • The touch has to feel non-sexually harassing. This depends on the specific part of the body touched and on the specific characteristics of the person (gender, age and relationship with the touched person).
  • Being touched on the face by a co-worker is considered the most inappropriate and harassing type of touch. It is not surprising then, that it is also a touch that sends the strongest messages in intimate relationships as well. A touch to the face in intimate relationships can be tender and communicate love and intimacy, or it can be aggressive and frightening and done to communicate control and dominance.
  • Touch in the waist region is also inappropriate and harassing.
  • A gentle tap on the shoulder is considered the least harassing. 

The many powers of touch.

Touch is such a powerful means of communication. It is the first language we learn and it is the first sense to develop. Done appropriately, it has a profound capacity to nurture our relationships and our overall well-being. Here are some things that it’s capable of.

  1. More nurturing touch, less violence.

    Research shows that when there is greater physical affection during childhood, the rates of adult physical violence are lower. On the other hand, when touch is limited, physical and verbal aggression is higher. The results have been found in both adolescents and children

  2. Communication without words.

    Professor Matt Hertenstein at DePauw University has researched the use of touch as a language and has found that we can communicate emotion through touch, not just with those we are familiar with, but also with strangers. Hertenstein put two strangers in front of each other and separated them with a physical barrier. One person had to put their arm through a hole in the barrier. The other person had to communicate an emotion to the stranger on the other side using only a one-second touch to the stranger’s forearm. With so many emotions on the list, the chances of guessing the right emotion just by chance were about 8%. The results left no doubt about our ability to communicate emotion through touch. Compassion was correctly interpreted almost 60% of the time, Gratitude, anger, love and fear were correctly interpreted more than 50% of the time. 

  3. Reduces stress.

    There’s no doubt that a cuddle from the right person at the right time can take the steam out of stress. Any touch, even an incidental one that lasts for less than a second, can soothe the physiological response to stress by lowering blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone). Lower stress means happier hearts. 

  4. Brings people closer together.

    Oxytocin is affectionately known as ‘the cuddle chemical’. Affection that is wanted causes the release of oxytocin. It helps to nurture feelings of trust and connectedness and it also reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). Twenty seconds of affectionate touching (hugging, back rubs, gentle stroking) is enough to trigger the release of oxytocin. It is also released during sex.

  5. Communicates compassion.

    Sometimes there are no words, but there is  touch. Touch activates the body’s vagus nerve which is intimately connected with our compassionate response. The vagus nerve is the pair of nerves that extends from the brain to the belly and passes the heart along the way. 

  6. It just makes people … nicer.

    Those who are touched in ways that feel appropriate and safe are more likely to co-operate and share resources. As always, the touch doesn’t have to be monumental. A quick touch on the back can do beautiful things.

  7. Nurtures growth and development.

    For babies to thrive, they need to be touched. Premature babies who received three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 consecutive days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical care and all the nutrition, warmth and physical security. As well as this, infants whose mothers touched them more had more advanced visual motor skills and more advanced gross motor development. 

  8. But it’s not just for the babies.

    Massage therapy reduces the pain in pregnant women, helps to ease the symptoms of prenatal depression and improves the couple relationship.

  9. Helps people with Alzheimers

    Touching (touch therapy, massage therapy) for patients with Alzheimers reduces stress and depressive symptoms and helps them to make emotional connections with others.

  10. A touch that lasts less than a second can influence behaviour. 

    Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion. In the study, undergraduate university students were first asked to work on a maths problem individually. All students were given positive encouragement by the teacher as they worked on the problem. As the teacher delivered the praise to each student, a number of students were briefly touched for one second on the forearm as they worked. Following this, students were asked to demonstrate the solution on a board in front of the class. Students who were briefly touched on the forearm by the teacher during the exercise were more likely to volunteer than those who were not. 

    Touching tends to have become taboo in the American school system and valid fears about abusive forms of touching rightfully limit contact within the classroom. But these findings suggest that as we define and redefine the limits for this contact, we should not neglect the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers.‘  Nicolas Guéguen, Professor of Psychology.

  11. And in the library.

    When students checked out a book from a library, students who had the library card returned to them in such a way that they had physical contact with the librarian for about half a second, reported liking the library more and were more likely to go back. The touch was so minimal that not all were aware of the touch when it happened. The effect was the same whether students were consciously aware of the touch or not. 

    Moving from the library to the sales room, buyers who were slightly touched by a salesperson rated that salesperson more positively than buyers who weren’t touched. The key is ‘slightly’ touched as in very non-aggressive, very non-sleazy and very incidental. 

  12. Happier, closer intimate relationships.

    Physical affection between couples is gold in relationships. Aside from boosting that loving feeling, physical affection eases the subjective experience of stress and improves relationship satisfaction. When couples in one study were asked to take part in a stressful event (public speaking), those couples who hugged for 20 seconds after spending 10 minutes holding hands and watching a romantic video (awwww) had significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than the couples who only rested quietly for 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

  13. Builds champion teams.

    Research has found that teams that touched more performed better. In research that looked specifically at NBA players , it was found that when players touch their teammates more, such as with a high five, fist bumps, chest bumps, a hug after scoring a goal, they performed better. The reason for this is unknown – we just know it works. It is likely to be related to increased co-operation, increased confidence, and a closer connection between players.

  14. Makes your sorry sound ‘sorrier’.

    Touch during an apology adds warmth and sincerity. It triggers a part of the brain called the insula which plays a part in processing emotions. The warmth, closeness, eye contact and other messages that are communicated through touch can help soothe leftover negative emotion and upset that has warranted the apology in the first place.

To make it count, be mindful.

Tuning in to the touch isn’t always necessary – touch has been shown to have positive benefits even when the experience of being touched doesn’t register – but being mindful of the touch will boost the good that comes from it.

Touch is a language, and listening can be profoundly connecting, healing and soothing. When you hug someone close to you, for example, slow it down. Feel the full experience of the touch. Feel the warmth of the skin or the electricity or tenderness that might not come from it. Rather than having it pass as a thing you do, let it be a thing you feel.

With strangers touch can be more difficult. Opportunities will present themselves but there are plenty of social rules that stand guard. Handshaking is a form of touch which is socially acceptable with strangers and when it is done mindfully, it can allow for eye contact and a greater connection. When it’s appropriate and incidental, as opposed to creepy and forced, brief interpersonal touch can make a very real difference to an interaction.

And finally …

We all have an inbuilt need to be touched. When it is done respectfully and appropriately, touch is a vital part of the human experience. The touch doesn’t have to be intimate and it doesn’t have to be big to have an effect. A pat on the back, a rub on the shoulder, a handshake, a professional massage – all stimulate the reward centres in the brain. We feel happier, safer, more confident, more soothed and more connected.

Over time, our own histories and experiences influence the way we see the world and the way we reach into it to fulfil our needs. Though we need to stay protected and be wary of unsafe touch, we also need to be careful not to rob ourselves of the nurturing, healing and connectedness that comes through basic human touch. Humans need humans. It has always been that way and it always will be. It is important to define what is right and what is acceptable and to have boundaries where necessary, and at the same time leave space for what will nourish our health, our relationships and our spirit.

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17 Comments

Turenne

It is great to raise our awareness about nurturing, mending a relationship or just showing that we care with a simple mindful touch. Mindfulness is the key to a safe and healthy touch. Isn’t it?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Absolutely Turenne. Touch can be so powerful can’t it and mindfulness is such an important part of everything we do, including keeping touch safe, nurturing and healthy.

Reply
Turenne

I agree Karen! What attracts me most in Hey Sigmund is that I feel mindfulness underlying every beautiful article.

I trust dance to help understand viscerally that important state of being and to learn through a better connection to our body to live mindfully. I try to share that on world dance spirit danse .

Care to give me your feedback on this?

Reply
Lucy

This is a really lovely article, thank you. I am a physio and it is such a privilege to be able to touch people (without wanting to sound like a pervert) and to connect with them in a tactile way.
At the moment my kids drive me mad by touching me all the time and leaning on me, but I also know that at some point they won’t do this, and I will crave their touch when its gone.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Lucy. The work you do as a physio is healing on so many levels and touch is at the heart of it. I know what you mean with your kids – sometimes a moment of space would be so nice wouldn’t it. It will ease off a lot eventually but they’ll never be too old for a cuddle (even if they act like they are!).

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Sue

This article made me think about the mixed messages we send to teens, at a time in their lives when the need for touch explodes and also during a time when there is a natural distancing from parents. We dismiss their need for touch and natural exploration (confusing it with sexual acting-out). Yet, this can be a time of serious hard-life lessons about ‘good touch/bad touch.’ It seems to me that we need healthier more open discussions with young people on the topic of touch. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Sue I absolutely agree with you. The need for touch never leaves, but with confusing information (or no information!) teens are vulnerable to decisions that might not be good ones for them. Conversation is key isn’t it.

Reply
Zoe

Thank you so much!

I just love this article!

If everyone knew and practiced this, it would be a major step forward to creating a saner world.

Reply
Natalie

My husband is Spanish and we have moved back to Spain after living 30 years in Canada. The people here kiss and hug and touch with all the time and I love it! But the problem here is that everybody talks but nobody listens – parents don’t listen to their children and the children and adolescents suffer from this. Any thoughts?

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Hey Sigmund

Children learn so many things from their parents that their parents don’t realise they are teaching them – even listening! Listening is a skill that also needs to be learned. The hardest part is putting your own needs on hold for long enough to listen to what someone else needs. It’s not as automatic as you might think. If parents aren’t listening to their kids, it’s not surprising that kids aren’t listening to their parents. (But the way people touch sounds lovely!)

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Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal>

Reply
Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal.

Reply

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