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The Power of Touch

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 19, 2010 @ 9:34 am In Health,Personal Improvement,Prevention | 93 Comments

The largest organ on our body is the skin. Its protective layers guard our muscles, bones, internal organs, and ligaments, while its active function results in the most fundamental of our five senses – that of touch. For all our focus on maintaining optimal organ function through diet, exercise, and lifestyle, could it be that we’re neglecting the organ that figures most prominently in our daily, direct communion with the material world?

I know that it’s awfully easy for me to go several days without real, meaningful physical contact with another human when I’m on the road promoting the book or giving a talk. Oh, sure, there are handshakes and incidental shoulder brushes and maybe even the occasional fist bump, but it’s not the same. I miss my wife and kids. You can’t exactly hug total strangers (nor would you really want to) or even business associates. When I’m away from my family and close friends, I realize just how ubiquitous our self-made, imaginary personal bubbles have become. We all walk around with them. This world is getting more crowded every day, and yet we’re somehow able to maneuver through it without so much as touching a single person unless we’re crammed into a train or city street. And still, even in those situations, people are loathe to make contact with one another, even ocular, and we manage to avoid most of it.

Take the phrase “touchy feely,” for example. What imagery does it conjure? Positive? Its literal definition is “marked by or emphasizing physical closeness and emotional openness,” but the phrase originates as an epithet. Because language is an organic thing, a reflection of its users and their society, and because the phrase is exclusively uttered from a position of discomfort with the idea of touching or being touched, “touchy feely” arises from a society diametrically opposed to physical contact and touch. Men who can’t bring themselves to hug their fathers or male friends without feeling physically ill (or, worse, that they might “catch the gay”); young men and women unable to separate honest affection from sexual attention; kids who spend their formative years touching the cold hard plastic of an XBox controller or remote control without developing nary a scrape, bruise, or welt from physical contact with peers; entire families that text, chat, or email to communicate, even when living under the same roof – this is the legacy of our apparently social revulsion to touch and physical closeness.

It starts with infants, of course. Many babies, upon being born, are instantly whisked away for checkups, tests, and to “let the mother rest.” It seems odd that in that most crucial of windows, where the mother-child post-womb relationship is in its infancy, many kids don’t even get to see their mothers. Instead, they’re in some room with some stranger having weird things done to them.

The first sense infants develop in the womb is touch, and when they’re born, touch is the most pre-attuned sense, whereas stuff like sight and taste take months to fully develop. A just-born infant, I would argue, needs to be with its mother, needs to feel her warmth (and she the baby’s), needs to indulge the only viable sense available at the moment. I imagine that initial (and in the wild, unavoidable and inevitable) physical closeness between mammalian mother and mammalian child is the foundation for the rest of the child’s life. It sets the stage, so to speak. I’m reminded of that old cartoon trope, where a baby bird hatches and latches onto the first creature it sees as its mother, even if that creature is Sylvester the cat licking his chops. There’s probably some truth to that. A child’s born and, if nature has dictated, that child is in immediate intimate contact with mom. Maybe those first few moments are more crucial than we think. Maybe the lack of physical contact between newborn and new mother reverberates through life, setting the stage for an adult with a mild distaste for human touch. You populate half of society with folks who were never really touched as children, who never really learned the essential importance of touch, and maybe you get what we have now. I’m speculating here, of course.

But we do know that animals touch each other all the time. It’s the Primal way. Young monkeys and apes cling to mothers’ backs. Social grooming is a staple of many animals’ lives. It’s utilitarian, because not all animals can completely clean themselves (we’ve all got hard to reach places) alone, but it also reinforces social structure and interpersonal relationships. Older apes groom each other, and this grooming affects endorphin levels [7]. Wolf packs sleep together. Kangaroo kids hang out in that famous pouch. Or how about pets? Dogs will nuzzle and lick their masters and cats will head butt you and curl up in your lap and meow until you relent and offer your hand. It’s almost like touch is a requirement of animals; they crave and need it.

Do we?

Well, we’re animals, too. I’m a firm believer in listening to our bodies and to our instincts. They exist for a reason, our instincts, and though we shouldn’t surrender completely to their rule, we can use them as subtle indications of what might work best. These instincts might be muted in us big brains, but we’re animals. If they – especially the mammals, like us – yearn for touch, maybe there’s something to it. Maybe we need it, too.

Besides, despite all the New Age talk of energy fields and the power of touch, we know that people who have loved ones [8] to touch on a regular basis live longer, happier lives. People who have sex on a regular basis [9] also live happier, longer lives. It’s not mystical or magical; it’s practical. You touch people and have sex when you’re comfortable and happy with the person you’re touching. Happy people are, ahem, happier. Happy people live longer [10], and even if they didn’t, they’re happy, and that’s arguably the whole point of sentient existence. You’ve heard of companion animals, right? They improve the health and longevity of their owners [11] (PDF), especially the widows, supposedly because of the added companionship and touching/petting that goes on. There have been studies [12] where lab rabbits respond positively to touch as well. A colleague recently shared this anecdote with me: lab rabbits with terminal cancer living on the bottom row of the cages live longer than rabbits with cancer who live in higher cages. The only difference between the top and bottom row rabbits being that lab assistants handled the rabbits in the bottom cages more during feeding. When you’re dying of terminal cancer in a metal cage, I’ll bet you begin to really look forward to those few seconds of chin scratches each day.

I will say that things seem to be changing. When you watch old episodes of “The Tonight Show,” it’s all handshakes between Johnny Carson and his guests. It’s very formal, whereas now the male guests typically hug the host. And in sports, ironically the most stereotypically hypermasculine arena, there’s a ton of physical contact between teammates. Butt slapping, high fives, chest bumps, team huddles – it’s all a huge display of men and women incredibly comfortable with the idea of physical touch. There was even a recent study [13] (PDF) mentioned in ESPN Magazine that noted the prevalence of high fives and chest bumps and other physical contact in pro basketball. The Cleveland Cavaliers, holders of the best record in the NBA this season (though now trounced from the playoffs), touch each other more than any other team in the league, while the teams with losing records tend to touch less. Do they touch less because they’re losing, or do they lose because they touch less and lack cohesion? Who knows, but the scientists in the article theorized that the high rate of touch definitely has something to do with it.

Still, though, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to integrate touch into our lives, not in some formal, creepy way, like organizing community grooming or hugging sessions, but in a healthy, normal, organic manner. When your kid comes home bleeding and bleating from some mishap, try offering a hug instead of immediately going for the bandages and antiseptic. Hug your friend next time you see him or her. Massage your significant other, just for the heck of it. Ladies, randomly slip your hand under his shirt and scratch his back (trust me, we love it). Pet your dog/cat/rat/rabbit. When you meet someone, maybe try going for the double hand clasp, or even the medieval forearm clasp. Tousle some scruffy street urchin’s mop-head next time he’s hawking newspapers on the corner.

A dog trainer friend of mine taught me a cool trick once: when your dog is anxious, upset, or otherwise freaking out at something, pull on its neck scruff. This immediately soothes the animal, because it’s exactly what mother dogs do to pups – they carry them around by the scruff of their necks, and adult dogs still make that subconscious connection. I’m thinking the same holds true for humans. Why wouldn’t it? How do you console a grieving friend who’s just lost their father? You hug them. It’s your first reaction and theirs, too. They go for the hug to feel better and you open your arms. How do you soothe a crying child? With hugs and caressing. What changes between childhood and adulthood that renders this treatment ineffective? Why do we console a crying adult with nervous, awkward silence and averted eyes (or powerful medicine)? Those same physiological reactions that soothe the child might just play out in the adult, too. It’s not as if our hormones stop working or we stop enjoying the soothing touch of a loved one just because we have the ability to reproduce and legally drink alcohol.

It’s in these powerful, incredibly painful moments of trauma that we reconnect with our animal instincts and the walls of social grace or personal hang-ups come crashing down – and we relent to interpersonal touch. We submit, because its draw is inexorable and the relief it offers is instantaneous. There’s that famous saying, “No atheists in foxholes.” What about “No emotional stoics when personal tragedy strikes”? It doesn’t quite have the same easy grace about it, but I think it works.

We should work on touch, folks. We shouldn’t need tragedy to touch each other. We should give in to our Primal urge to touch as a way to connect with others in a meaningful way and to express joy, not just counteract misery.

Let me know what you think in the comment board and thanks for reading.


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[7] grooming affects endorphin levels: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6TBX-4859R47-Y&_user=10&_coverDate=12/31/1989&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=3c48d440d5d2b50684ea5f55a0ee1269

[8] people who have loved ones: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Depression/story?id=2298049

[9] have sex on a regular basis: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/story?id=7037716&page=1

[10] Happy people live longer: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/04/health/cbsdoc/main6266646.shtml

[11] improve the health and longevity of their owners: http://www.pawssf.org/Document.Doc?id=15

[12] studies: http://labanimals.awionline.org/pubs/cq02/Cq-rabbits.html

[13] study: http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/%7Ekeltner/publications/kraus.huang.keltner.2010.pdf

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