Michelangelo once said, “To touch can be to give life.” Science has proven his words correct.
When was the last time you hugged a friend? Not a one second bro-hug. A multi-count, two-armed embrace.
When have you last gripped another man’s shoulder, patted him on the back, or shook his hand?
This June, the secretary of corrections for the New Mexico Department of Corrections went undercover for 48 hours within his own prison system to better understand solitary confinement practices and its effects on inmates. While he was there, he commented on the fact that some of the only touch these inmates may receive all day is during transfer to and from the recreation yard. He was, and is, concerned about the emotional, psychological, and physical health of these solitary confinement inmates. While he wasn’t explicitly studying touch, he knows our underlying need as social beings for human contact.
For some, touch has become taboo. “Stay out of my personal bubble and I’ll stay out of yours.” But what they miss is touch’s incredible power. No, this isn’t the awkward “good touch/bad touch” conversation. It’s about how touch builds connection with others and truly has the power to give life.
Get this. In the thirteenth century, German emperor Frederick II ordered a despicable experiment that tells us today about the importance of touch. Frederick wondered what language and words children raised in isolation would learn. His servants kidnapped infants from homes with strict instructions—no touching, cuddling, or talking with the children, under any circumstances, afterward. Not to spoil your day, but do you know what happened to those babies? They died before they learned to speak!
Centuries later in the 1960s, equally cruel experiments with primates showed that those stripped from their mothers and raised in isolation developed Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation Syndrome (SADS). SADS feels as bad as it sounds. It caused the primates depression, movement disorders like rocking and self-mutilation, and an ultra-sensitivity to touch.
More recently, the science of touch has gained additional traction. Tiffany Field, a leader in touch research, discovered that premature infants receiving just 15 minutes of touch therapy for approximately one week gained 47% more weight than those receiving standard medical care.
Research has even shown that baby rats groomed more by their mothers grow up calmer and more resilient.
You receive less touch than infants, but it doesn’t make the necessity any less. Partly it’s because Mom’s slobbery kisses in public don’t help your independence or popularity level. Partly it’s because touch associates with sex and can weird you out rather than make you feel good. Also, there are some creepy people out there you just don’t want touching you. This all results in less direct contact.
Men should touch and be touched more. No, you may not grope the next person you see. Respectable touch is the name of the game.
Consider this. In the 1960’s, psychologist Sidney Jourard observed pairs of individuals at cafes in various countries to see how often touch was made in a one hour period. In the United States, pairs touched, on average two times. Conversely, French pairs touched an average of 110 times, while those in Puerto Rico touched an average of 180 times.
Touch increases the brain’s oxytocin levels, a chemical which aids heart health and actually makes you feel more connected. In turn, touch lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Additionally, touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex, linked to reward and compassion feelings. Maybe this is why hugs and touches give you a warm feeling in the chest, relax you, and make you feel closer to others.
Begin at home. Hug your siblings, and let them hug you. Accept a neck massage after a stressful day. Greet a friend with a high five or a pat on the shoulder. Hold someone’s hand. Every respectable touch will bring you and the receiver happiness. It will bring you both life.
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Image credit: geishaboy500/flickr