Human touch is the first language we learn as a means of emotional expression. Touch can be of different types, caring, friendly, supportive, encouraging, suggestive, provocative, offensive or dominant.
Recently researchers have begun to focus on this subtle kind of wordless communication, whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder or a creepy touch on the arm. Momentary touch can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures, expressions, and sometimes words.
Participants in a series of tests, without seeing, were able to communicate anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy at greater than chance levels, as well as happiness and sadness.
Tactile sensation, from a massage to a pat on the back, as well as hugs, accelerate recovery from illness, calm us when we are afraid, and can help premature babies gain weight.
Our skin is our body's largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin, the one that makes you feel good, is released. At the same time, cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced, promoting emotional & physical well-being.
"The perception of tactile information is the first sense to develop in utero", said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute. At birth, babies use their hands to acquire information about their environment, and skin-to-skin contact, particularly with newborns, is calming, with babies crying less and sleeping better. It seems to help the mothers, too, reducing their stress levels and lowering levels of depression.
If touch is hostile this can lead to anxiety, threat and sense of vulnerability. Accidental touch amongst strangers can lead to retaliation or even fighting. Absence of touch between two people in a close relationship is a precursor to lack of interest, trust or sympathy, however couples who touch more reported greater satisfaction in the relationship.
Touch deprivation in old age is real - for many reasons frail, elderly people are less likely to receive expressive touch. A lack of this contributes to feelings of isolation, anxiety, pain, loneliness, boredom and helplessness. Necessary touch such as general care or medical care may be needed but when compassionate presence is combined with focused touch or massage, the person feels validated and this can improve the quality of life for elders physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.
Touching in team sports is nothing new. Early in the last century, athletes could be seen shaking hands like proper gentlemen. Touching may be good for building team chemistry, or at the least, a symptom of a healthy team dynamic team. Teams that touch more at the beginning of the season win more over the course of the entire season. Seems like those group hugs could be related to performance after all.
Really it can make you smarter!! Researchers at the University of Miami had people do a difficult maths problem, then had them do it again after receiving a chair massage. Post-massage, subjects showed increased speed and accuracy in solving the problems as well as more pleasure in the task, thanks to the reduction of stress.
If no one is near to hand, scientists are discovering that you don't have to touch another person to receive a sensory lift. Next time you're feeling low, cradle a steaming mug of coffee or tea in your hands. If you're like most of us, it will put you in a more generous mood, people tend to think more warmly of others if they're holding something warm. You could also warm up your mood by booking a massage, or meeting a friend for lunch and giving them a big hug :)