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The Vital Importance of Human Touch

The science of human touch and what to do if you're feeling deprived.

Key points

  • The need for human touch is one of our most basic, primal needs.
  • Touch deprivation is correlated with negative health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders.
  • Ways to address touch deprivation include massage therapy, pets, and weighted blankets.
AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock
Source: AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock

Let’s be honest. The past 18 months have not invited a lot of touch. Quarantined at home and isolated from friends, many people have felt a lack of connection both emotionally as well as physically. Hugs and handshaking happen much less frequently now. And although the world is slowly returning to normal, the rise of the Delta variant suggests that social distancing will likely continue to define our social interactions for some time.

Much has been written in the media about the limits that social distancing has placed on single people’s sexual activity. As a human sexuality professor, I hear all about this from my students as well as from my followers. What’s largely been missed, though, is a more subtle yet even more fundamental need: the need for human touch.

The Science of Touch

The research demonstrating the need for human touch is vast. From a developmental standpoint, infants literally cannot survive without human touch. Skin-to-skin contact in even in the first hour after birth has been shown to help regulate newborns’ temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and decreases crying (Ferber, Feldman, & Makhoul, 2008). Touch also increases mothers' relaxation hormones and aids in the release of oxytocin. A now-famous study examined the sensory deprivation of children in understaffed orphanages in Romania (Carlson & Earls, 1997). The touch-deprived children, the authors found, had strikingly lower cortisol and growth development levels for their age group.

Harlow’s Monkey experiments (Harlow & Harlow, 1965) are perhaps the most famous example of research pointing at the primacy of the need for touch. In a series of experiments, Harlow created inanimate surrogate mothers for baby monkeys made from wire and wool. Each infant became attached to its particular “mother,” recognizing its unique face and preferring it above others.

Next, Harlow presented the infants with a soft, cuddly clothed "mother" as well as a wire "mother" located in two separate but attached chambers. Only the wire “mother” held a bottle with food. Harlow found that the monkeys spent far more time next snuggled against the cloth “mother” than they spent with the wire “mother” even though the wire “mother” was the only one with food. Food may be necessary for survival, but touch is what sustains us.

Later in his career, Harlow carried out perhaps his most controversial study, by cultivating infant monkeys in isolation chambers for up to 24 months. The infant monkeys emerged from isolation deeply disturbed, a finding of which many credit as having started the animal rights movement.

Since Harlow’s experiments, research has uncovered an astonishing number of poor health outcomes that result when we are deprived of touch. The correlation between anxiety, depression and stress and touch is large and inversely related. It has been found that touch calms our nervous center and slows down our heartbeat. Human touch also lowers blood pressure as well as cortisol, our stress hormone. It also triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone known for promoting emotional bonding to others.

Studies using PET scans have found that the brain quiets in response to stress when a person’s hand is held. The effect is greatest when the hand being held is that of a loved one, but it still works even if it’s just a stranger (Field, 2010).

Research also suggests a negative correlation between touch and the severity of borderline personality disorder symptoms (Field, 2010). This suggests that the effects of touch extend to our basic neural circuitry. Even our immune response seems to be somewhat governed by touch, with the finding that those who are deprived of human touch are more likely to suffer from immune system diseases. It’s ironic that during a highly contagious pandemic where our immune systems are being the most stressed, we are being deprived of something (human touch) that is so essential to its function.

How to Increase Touch in Your Life

Given the obvious importance of human touch, one question may be how to introduce more of it into your life. Even for those lucky enough to live with families or other people one has podded with, the amount of touch we are receiving has undoubtedly decreased since before the pandemic.

Research shows that one of the most effective ways to benefit from the therapeutic benefits of touch is through massage. Massage therapy has been shown to ease depression, increase attentiveness and enhance immune function (Lindgren, Jacobsson & Lamas, 2014). If massage therapy is not your thing, maybe a manicure or pedicure or other type of spa treatment that involves touch is. Pets have also been found to mimic some of the benefits of human touch, so long as you spend ample time petting them (Young et al. 2020). Although weighted blankets aren’t human, they’ve been found to calm the nervous system in the same manner as touch. Just pretend you are one of Harlow’s monkeys.

Consent is Key

One final note: Although the need for human touch is immense, it’s important to highlight consent. Just because you are in desperate need of touch does not mean that any other person is obligated to give it to you, nor should they be pressured into doing so. This rule extends to children especially, who are learning the importance of recognizing their own privacy spheres. This may not go over well with grandma and grandpa, but the criticality of consent is an important enough lesson that drawing the line is worth it.

Facebook image: AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock

References

CARLSON, M. and EARLS, F. (1997), Psychological and Neuroendocrinological Sequelae of Early Social Deprivation in Institutionalized Children in Romania. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 807: 419-428

Harlow HF, Dodsworth RO & Harlow MK (1965). "Total social isolation in monkeys". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 54 (1): 90–97.

Lindgren L, Jacobsson M, Lämås K. “Touch Massage, a Rewarding Experience.” Journal of Holistic Nursing. 2014;32(4):261-268.

Ferber, Feldman & Makhoul (2010) “The development of maternal touch across the first year of life,” Early Human Development, Volume 84, Issue 6,

Field, T. (2010),”Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review”

Developmental Review, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 367-383

Young J., Pritchard R., Nottle C., & Banwell H. (2020) “Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress.” Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, Vol. 4

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