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Maia Szalavitz
Maia Szalavitz

Touching Empathy

Lack of physical affection can actually kill babies.

Last week's Science Times had a neat article about the communicative and healing power of touch that became one of the site's most emailed articles. And it's not surprising: We live in a country that's starved for physical affection, where an outbreak of hugging by high school students prompts media coverage and even alarm, when many other cultures would find it either unremarkable or worth celebrating.

As the Times notes, however, touch can ease pain, lift depression and even possibly increase the odds that a team will win.

But touch is even more vital than this: Babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die.

Researchers discovered this when trying to figure out why some orphanages had infant mortality rates around 30-40%. We now know that orphanages are not suitable places for infants. Babies aged zero to five simply do not receive enough stimulation in group residential care to develop to their full capacity.

Critical here is individualized, physical parental attention. For one, this nurturing is necessary for the brain to learn to connect human contact with pleasure. This association is one of the foundations of empathy: We connect first through soothing touch and shared smiles.

Sadly, babies raised in orphanages often begin to fear touch and avoid it. Without having intensive, repeated, loving contact with the same one or two people, they simply can't make the proper connections. They don't get enough repetition with particular people to build in bonding. And that can spell trouble later in life as this early touch helps provide the template for all relationships thereafter.

Thankfully, when children raised in orphanages are placed in loving homes, much of this damage can be reversed. But some children never overcome it. Given the grounding of our early experience in nurturing touch, we'd do well to consider adding more friendly touch to our lives. Nursery schools, preschools, and even high schools sometimes ban physical contact in a misguided attempt to avoid sexual abuse.

That's likely to be ineffective and counterproductive. If kids don't get healthy touch, they are more vulnerable to predators who can harm them. Indeed, some cross-cultural research suggests that cultures which lavish more affection on infants and children are less violent and less prone to crime.

So, if you want empathetic children—and an empathetic culture—touch and be touched.

About the Author
Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz has published five books and written for The New York Times, Time magazine online, New Scientist, Psychology Today, and other major publications.

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