The Power of Touch

The Power of Touch – Blog Post by Denise Spragg

People often ask me why I became a holistic therapist after years of working as a solicitor in a busy magistrates’ court in the South East of England.  It was something I’d always been interested in, but the real push I needed came after a conversation I had with my late mother.  It was some time after my father had passed away, and we were chatting over a cup of tea.  I asked how things were going, and after telling me about day-to-day things, she looked at me and said, “but what I really miss is a hug.  Apart from you and Andy (my husband), nobody touches me any more.”  This really hit home with me, and it inspired me to get out there and study for my massage qualifications.  In the West, we still seem to equate touch with certain categories of people – for example, it is acceptable for parents and children to touch each other, as it is with romantic or sexual partners.  However, in other situations, it is less acceptable, and often becomes equated with assault or threatening behaviour.  We understand, of course, that there are boundaries with what is acceptable and what is not, but when did we lose the collective understanding of how comforting a hug, or a friendly hand on our shoulder, actually is? 

There have been many studies over the years into the senses, and when they become apparent to human beings.   Touch, along with hearing, has been found to be the first sense which develops in the womb, and at the other end of life, is the last to leave us.  I am sure that many of us who have been privileged enough to be present when a loved one passes away are very aware of how powerful a comforting hand is.  That gentle squeeze of the dying person’s hand can often result in breathing becoming less laboured and even blood pressure coming down, even when there seems to be no indication that they are conscious.  So, why is this?  What is it about touch that has such power? Let’s take a few examples:

You’re in a crowded Tube train on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on the bus into town. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts.

A toddler in his buggy looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to Mum for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quietly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away—then back to Mum. She takes his hand again: squeeze and release.

A twenty-something in a skirt and blazer sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blonde wisps off her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.

A couple propped against a pole shares messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair.

A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with some elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.

Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.” But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. “I was surprised,” Hertenstein admits. “I thought the accuracy would be at chance level,” about 25 percent.

More recent studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they’re touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request. Call it the human touch, a brief reminder that we are, at our core, social animals. “Lots of times in these studies people don’t even remember being touched. They just feel there’s a connection, they feel that they like that person more,” Guerrero says.

Just how strong is touch’s bonding benefit? To find out, a team led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Michael Kraus tracked physical contact between teammates during NBA games (consider all those chest bumps, high fives, and backslaps). The study revealed that the more on-court touching there was early in the season, the more successful teams and individuals were by season’s end. The effect of touch was independent of salary or performance, eliminating the possibility that players touch more if they’re more skilled or better compensated.

“We were very surprised. Touch predicted performance across all the NBA teams,” says Kraus. “Basketball players sometimes don’t have time to say an encouraging word to a teammate; instead, they developed this incredible repertoire of touch to communicate quickly and accurately,” he explains, adding that touch can likely improve performance across any cooperative context. As with our primate relatives, who strengthen social bonds by grooming each other, in humans, “touch strengthens relationships and is a marker of closeness,” he says. “It increases cooperation but is also an indicator of how strong bonds are between people.”

If a post-rebound slap on the back or the brush of a hand while delivering a bill can help us all get along a bit better, it may be because “when you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin, you lower stress hormones,” says the Touch Research Institute’s Field. At the same time, warm touch stimulates release of the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, which enhances a sense of trust and attachment.

The release also helps explain our propensity for self-caressing, which we do hundreds of times each day as a calming mechanism. “We do a lot of self-touching: flipping our hair, hugging ourselves,” Field notes. Other common behaviours include massaging our foreheads, rubbing our hands, or stroking our necks. Evidence supports the idea that it’s effective: Self-massage has been shown to slow the heart rate and lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

Therapies can, of course, be incredibly effective even when there is no “hands-on” contact between the therapist and the client.  In this case, such as reiki, you could say that there is contact between the parties’ energies, and this has also been shown to be beneficial.  However, I have seen real changes in clients in the hour they spend having a massage or reflexology treatment.  Often, people are quite nervous of what will happen, and this shows in their muscle tension and response.  However, by the end of the time, they become visibly relaxed, their voices are calmer and the muscles lay straighter and aligned, as they should be.  People report better sleep and feeling more “in balance”; something which, in this modern world, is incredibly important.