I’ve just returned from a trip to Shanghai, where I indulged in one of my favorite oxytocin-stimulating activities: massage. It takes lots of trust to let a complete stranger dig their hands into your joints, especially when you have no language in common with that person and no liability laws to protect you. But Chinese massages are great, so the trust is well-rewarded.
I don’t waste my money on the spa-type places. I started at one of the “blind massage” parlors that are common in China. I was led to a big room full of massage tables, where I was treated skillfully alongside a dozen other people, all with street clothes on. At one point, a cell phone rang at the table next to me, and I was stunned to hear the customer chat away in Chinese as his massage continued. When I got up at the end, I was amazed to see that most of the foot massage patrons were on the phone.
Another massage parlor lured me in with their combination package: one hour foot massage and one hour body massage. When it was over, I was molecularly re-configured. But they kept trying to up-sell me on bigger combination packages: with oil, with belly rub, with rare essential oil plus special belly rub technique. So I took my realignment project elsewhere.
I splurged on a place that installed me in a dark, curtained-off cubicle. A muscular young Chinese man walked in and said “Hello. I’m Number 20. Take off clothes.” He left, and I obeyed. As I waited for his return, I noticed that I was naked and alone in a foreign country waiting for a stranger to pound my aged fascia. And it seemed curiously safe.
This is the miracle of the modern world. It’s usually safe to wander back streets in other people’s countries, and engage in transactions with nothing but gestures and smiles. Modern trade requires a huge amount of trust, which took centuries to build. We should celebrate that trust instead of taking it for granted. Most people fill their heads with the calamities on the news and don’t notice how often things go right.
My confidence in Number 20 was truly tested, though. I didn't know my ribs could withstand that much force. Did he know what he was doing? Was he properly licensed and bonded? I willed myself to trust him because defending and contracting makes it hurt more. That’s the irony of massage. It stimulates the neurochemical oxytocin, the feeling we experience as trust, but you have to start with a lot of trust for it to work.
I am not saying you should trust everyone. That would be foolish. Maybe my confidence was buoyed by Number 20’s spotless white shoes, his relaxed smile, and the pajamas provided on the massage table— an intriguing cross between a hospital gown and a Mao suit. But when he finished crunching my carcass, he said “next time come ask for Number 20,” and I knew that after a few days of recovery, I would.
How to wire your brain for more oxytocin is explained my book Meet Your Happy Chemicals.
a highly informative poster at the Shanghai Zoo