Human Touch. We all crave it to some extent whether we acknowledge it or not. Touch is the first sense to develop in humans and possibly the last to fade. There are approximately 5 MILLION touch receptors in our skin – 3,000 at a fingertip. It’s no wonder that a squeeze of the hand, a huge bear hug, a reassuring side hug, a pat on the back, a warm handshake, or just a hand on the shoulder can have a caring and calming effect on the body, mind, and soul.
“To touch can be to give light.”
Even though touch proves to have measurable health benefits, it is also true that touch deprivation can have a detrimental effect on health. A growing body of research suggests that American children and adolescents are dangerously touch-deprived. Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University says that touch deprivation is a real thing. “Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting,” says Hertenstein. “Compared with other cultures, we live in a touch-phobic society that’s made affection with anyone but loved ones taboo.” (Behavioral scientists have found that about two to four feet is the accepted amount of personal space most Americans need to feel comfortable; in Latin America and the Middle East that distance can shrink to less than a foot or two.)
What Research Says About the Benefits of Human Touch
When touch is properly used it has the potential to transform the practice of medicine and even one’s health.
Studies now show that touching Alzheimer’s patients can have huge effects on helping them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health has found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost the survival rates of patients with complex diseases. And other research suggests that a sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves patients with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched.
Human touch may also decrease disease. A University of North Carolina study found that women who hugged their spouse or partner frequently (even for just 20 seconds) exhibited lower blood pressure, possibly because a warm embrace increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Conventional medicine tells us that lower blood pressure may decrease a person’s risk of heart disease.
Research at the University of California’s School of Public Health found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from the doctor may boost the survival rate of patients with complex diseases.
Neurologist Shekar Raman, MD, in Richmond, Virginia explains: “A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others — on even the smallest physical level — the happier you’ll be.”
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., who in 1992 founded the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has found that massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression—in the women and their spouses alike. Ms. Field’s research also suggests that autistic children who usually dislike being touched loved being massaged by a parent or therapist.
Touch can also benefit the immune system. According to Ms. Field: “In studies of women with breast cancer, we found that when cortisol levels are up, natural killer (NK) cells are down. Natural killer cells are the front line of the immune system. They kill cancer cells, viral cells, and bacterial cells, so you definitely want them up. In one of our studies, for instance, women with stages 1 and 2 breast cancer were given 30-minute massages three times a week for five weeks. At the end of the study, the women had lower depression and hostility levels and increased urinary levels of serotonin, dopamine, NK cells, and lymphocytes—all of which suggested their immune systems were stronger.”
As reported in the August 2004 issue of Social Psychology of Education, French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen instructed the professor of a 120-person statistics class to give the same verbal encouragement to any student who volunteered to solve a problem at the front of his classroom. But to a randomly selected group of students within the class, the professor also gave a slight tap on the upper arm when speaking to them. Guéguen compared the volunteer rate of those who were touched to those who were not, and found that students who were touched were significantly more likely to volunteer again. In fact, roughly 28 percent of those who were touched volunteered again, compared with about nine percent of those who were not.
Certainly, this doesn’t mean we should invade the personal space of everyone with which we come in contact. However, scientifically, the power of touch highly suggests that we need to connect with other people on a basic physical level — to make us healthier, to make us less stressed and even smarter, to make our mood positive, and to deepen relationships. How many people have you hugged today?
Health Benefits of Human Touch
- eases pain
- helps with infant growth
- enhances vital signs
- stabilizes body temp
- can communicate positivity
- helps provide better sleep
- reduces irritability
- increases sociability
- strengthens relationships
- strengthens immune system
- helps with depression
- increases proper digestion
- releases serotonin
- enhances a sense of well-being
- stimulates oxytocin – the cuddle hormone
- slows heart rate – lowers blood pressure
- lowers the stress hormone cortisol
- gives comfort and relieves sadness
- can help us feel happiness & joy
- releases tension & tightness
- helps migraine pain
References and Research
Auvray, M., Myin, E., & Spence, C. (2010). The sensory-discriminative and affective-motivational aspects of pain. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 214-223.
Paladino, M.P., Mazzurega, M., Pavani, F., & Schubert, T. (2010). Synchronous multisensory stimulation blurs self-other boundaries. Psychological Science, 21, 1202-1207
Wilhelm, F. H., Kochar, A. S., Roth, W. T., & Gross, J. J. (2001). Social anxiety and response to touch: Incongruence between self-evaluative and physiological reactions. Biological Psychology, 58, 181-202.
Hertenstein MJ, Holmes R, McCullough M, Keltner D. The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion. 2009 Aug;9(4):566-73. DOI: 10.1037/a0016108.