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Why Have We Lost the Need For Physical Touch?

Does fear prevent us from making positive physical contact?

Has our hi-tech, media-socialized world lost something critical to our species—non-sexual human physical touch? Human physical contact has set us apart from other animals by contributing to the development of complex language, culture, thinking and emotional expression.

Two hundred years ago, a creature looking somewhat human, was sighted running through the forests of Southern France. Once captured, scientists determined he was age 11, and had run wild in the forests for much of his childhood. One of the fathers of psychiatry at that time, Phillipe Pinel, observed the child—named "Victor"—and concluded, erroneously, that the Victor was an idiot. A French physician attending Victor, disagreed with Pinel, concluding that the child had merely been deprived of human physical touch, which had retarded his social and developmental capacities.

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We know from child developmental research that the absence of physical bonding and healthy attachement between an adult and child may result in life-long emotional disturbances. James W. Prescott, an American developmental psychologist, proposed that the origins of violence in society were related to the lack of mother-child bonding. Harry Harlow completed extensive studies on the relationship between affection and development.

In Communist Romania, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in a pathological program to raise the birth rate through "science," established numerous orphanages. When the world was able to see these orphans after his overthrow, they were shocked to see severe underdevelopment in their social skills and values. The commonality for all these orphans was a lack of human physical touch, particularly of the loving kind.

What does all this have to do with today's world and workplace? Two things. The growing prevalence for human interaction through digital media—particularly for young people—versus personal physical contact, and the social and legal restrictions over physical contact in our schools and workplaces may have unintended negative consequences.

Josh Ackerman, a MIT psychologist, claims that people understand their world through physical experiences, and the first sense is through touch. He says that you can produce changes in peoples' thoughts through different physical experiences. His study, published in Science magazine, is the latest in the growing field of research called, "embodied cognition," a field of research that supports the concept of a mind-body connection.

In an article in Wired magazine, Brandon Keim contends, based on this embodied cognition research, that studies show children "are better at math when using their hands while thinking," and "actors recall lines better when moving. People tend toward generosity after holding a warm cup of coffee and are more callous after hold a cold drink," according to the work of Yale University psychologist John Bargh.

And when it comes to catching a woman's interest, little beats a man's winning smile and a touch on the arm. Studies have shown that a gentle brush of a woman's arm can boost his chances in love and another study showed that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm a second or two before making the request.

Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says "in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research suggests that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health." Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain's orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that "studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body's vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka "the love hormone." Keltner also describes the research that shows the economic benefits of physical touch, citing his own recent study of NBA basketball teams, concluding that teams whose players touch each other more win more games.

Research at University of California's School of Public Health found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from the doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases. Another recent study has found when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library roe—and is more likely to come back.

How does this relate to social media and the workplace? A large majority of the connection among young people today is done through social digital media, rather than real physical contact. In addition, in response to compliance and legal issues, both schools and workplaces have instituted clear restrictions over physical contact.

In our desire to have a politically correct and safe social environment, or an environment of instant communication, have we lost sight of the most important aspect of human development and culture—physical touch?

http:raywilliams.ca, @raybwilliams

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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