Touching News

Tiffany Field, founder of Touch Research Institutes, explains why healing is all in our hands.

By Nancy K. Dess, published March 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Developmental psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., is founder of the Touch Research Institutes, five centers worldwide devoted to the scientific study of how touch affects psychological and physical health. Field explains why, when it comes to healing, it's all in our hands.

NKD: How did you get into "touch?"

TF: I was trying to find ways for premature babies to grow. I had a premature baby myself and was working in neonatal intensive care units. When we had them suck on nipples while tube feeding, they gained more weight. We figured that if stimulating the mouth helped, then touching all over the body would work even better. That's how we got into massage therapy [MT].

What are some of massage therapy's important effects?

Babies gain more weight, sleep better and relate better to parents. Their brain waves indicate more alertness, and they learn faster. Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism also become more attentive. MT alleviates depression, too. It decreases stress hormones and increases serotonin, the body's own antidepressant. It also improves sleep. That relates, I think, to MT's alleviation of pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia and migraine, which seem to be exacerbated by sleep disorders.

MT also alters the immune system. In autoimmune problems such as asthma, lung functions improve and asthma attacks decrease. Immune cell counts improve in people with HIV. In a breast cancer study, natural killer cells are increasing, which is good, because they kill cancer cells. The list goes on.

How do you know it's massage—and not attention—that helps?

We have "attention" control groups. For example, if we're studying children with diabetes or cancer, some parents massage their kids at bedtime whereas others read aloud or do a light "sham" massage. We have learned that the key is stimulating deep pressure receptors.

MT must have economic implications.

Exactly. For example, in the premature baby study, massaged babies went home six days earlier than babies in the control group. The savings was $10,000 per baby; multiplied by the 470,000 premature babies born each year, that's a savings of $4.7 billion.

Any practical advice to offer?

Everybody needs to either get massaged by a therapist or a significant other, or self-massage by doing yoga or using a long-handled shower brush. Being touched in this way is as important as proper diet and exercise, and should be part of one's regular daily activities.

What happens when people don't get their share of touch?

Touch deprivation impairs development. Romanian nursery children, for example, were stunted, and MT helped them grow. Interestingly, nonhuman animals that are touch-deprived not only lose weight but become aggressive. In a study of 49 non-industrialized cultures, groups showing physical affection toward children had little adult violence; in groups that were less affectionate to kids, adults were significantly more violent.

Bonobos, an ape closely related to us, live in intimate physical contact with each other—and they're pacifists.

That's fascinating. This principle seems to apply generally. In a study, we found that there exists more physical affection toward children and less aggression among adults in France than in the United States. The power of touch in our lives seems rooted in our nature, as individuals and as social beings.