Touch is profoundly healing to the body, mind, and emotions. We know this instinctively. We’ve experienced, for example, that a friendly hug goes a long way in relieving stress from the day, cuddling a happy baby fills us with joy, and a professional massage can be deeply healing. Ayurveda has long recognized the nourishing value of touch. Oil massage, for example, is an integral part of ayurveda, and the word sneha, meaning “applying oil to the body,” also means “love.” Now scientific research is confirming the benefits of touch and the vital role it plays in our growth and development.
Humans Need Touch
A quarter-size patch of skin has 3 million cells, 50 nerve endings, and over 200 receptors. These receptors sense many details like pressure, temperature, vibration, skin stretch, and spatial awareness, all of which communicate social information to us. In fact, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health describe the skin as a “social organ,” for the skin is “the site of events and processes crucial to the way we think about, feel about, and interact with one another.”
Research on the importance of touch for human development has continually shown that touch is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being at all stages of life. You may have heard about the profound effects of touch on development during infancy, as described by Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, in her book Touch (2nd edition), but did you know research is finding other important benefits, ranging from stress reduction to improved self-image to relief from depression?
Conversely, science reports that touch deprivation may be associated with many problems, including neurological, social, adaptive, and physical issues. Dr. Field cites the lack of touch as a common cause of delayed growth, immune dysfunction, and sleep problems during infancy and early childhood. She also notes (Touch, 1st edition) that touch deprivation can lead to the development of allergies, dermatitis, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Field believes that our modern culture does not do enough to encourage healthy levels of positive touch, due to the risk of lawsuits, and feels that we may be socialized to avoid touch. Whether that is true or not, it is becoming clear that a healthy society depends, in part, on healthy levels of nurturing touch.
The Benefits of Healthy Touch
Positive touch can affect us at any stage in life and often influences how we feel about ourselves. In one study, university women who received regular massage showed more satisfaction with their bodies than women in the control group, who did not receive massage. Researchers also found that a brief touch on the shoulder helped people with low self-esteem navigate fear of death more comfortably. Massage may have a positive effect on depression as well. Depressed pregnant women who received two 20-minute massages from their partner each week had less depression, pain, and anxiety after 16 weeks of partner massage. Additionally, these women had fewer preterm or low-weight babies than women in the control groups, who did not receive massage.
Giving touch can be as effective as receiving touch. In one study, elderly people gave three massages a week to infants during a three-week period. Stress markers and depression decreased, and lifestyle and health improved markedly for the elders during the weeks of giving the massages. This evidence, combined with that of the aforementioned infant studies, suggests that massage can be equally beneficial to both giver and receiver. In the case of the elder participants in this study, however, receiving massage was less beneficial than giving. I suspect that the elders were inspired by a sense of purpose and caring in giving massage, in much the same way that I am inspired by helping my massage clients find relief from stress and muscle tension.
How Touch Makes Us More Socially Savvy
How is it that touch, as mentioned earlier, influences our social perceptions and the way we interact with each other? One study notes that areas of the brain associated with social perception and social cognition are activated by light touch. In other words, a post-encounter feeling is more than intuitive—your sense of a situation is enhanced by information received through touch. For example, that handshake with a potential business partner adds to your impression of her trustworthiness because of the information gathered by the receptors on your skin.
Research not only links touch and social perception, but also shows a connection between massage, increased vagal tone (activation of the vagus nerve), and social behavior. Vagal tone refers to how quickly and completely we are able to shift into parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode after a stressful situation. Dr. Field believes that massage activates the vagus nerve, resulting not only in a decrease in anxiety and depression, but also a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and other stress indicators. Increasingly, scientists are recognizing how stress affects mood and social behavior and how vagal tone, by shifting us out of stress mode, assists in aspects of social functioning such as the ability to sustain attention, interact appropriately in demanding social situations, and think flexibly.
Massage also increases oxytocin, a peptide that is sometimes called the cuddle hormone because of its emotional, anti-stress, and relationship benefits. Oxytocin has been shown to increase bonding in mammals, decrease anxiety and depression, and enhance social memory. In fact, according to one review, oxytocin has played an important role in the development of human sociality and facilitates “the high levels of social sensitivity and attunement” needed for our sociality and child rearing.
All combined, these studies showing how touch makes us more socially savvy underscore the importance of the skin as a social organ.
Keep in Touch
Since touch is intrinsic to our well-being, tune in to how much touch you have in your life and where you can add more. Massage, even self-massage, can help us tremendously when we are feeling out of touch. But massage is not the only way to get more touch in your life. Any contact with others, such as square dancing, contra dancing, or partner yoga creates a tactile, social kinship, as does participation in sports where high fives and shoulder slaps abound. A supportive hug or a pat on the shoulder helps us feel nurtured by and included in the web of social connectivity. This in turn can help us feel more connected to ourselves. Give someone you love a hug today and experience the amazing power of touch!