Making a positive case for touch — the most neglected of our senses.
Posted Jun 29, 2017
[Article revised on 26 March 2020.]
Convicted murderer Peter Collins died of cancer after 32 years in a Canadian prison. In that time, he became a champion of prison rights, and made a short film called Fly in the Ointment about a prolonged period that he spent in solitary confinement:
Somehow, I felt [my wife’s] fingers on my leg. Shocked and excited, I opened my eyes only to realize it was a fly walking on me. I was greedy for human touch so I closed my eyes and pretended it was her fingers. I tried to stay perfectly still because I didn’t want to frighten the fly off and be left alone.
After that, Collins would bite his cheek and apply a mixture of his own blood and saliva onto his skin to attract the flies that had become his only source of living touch.
Owing to smaller household sizes, greater migration, higher media consumption, and longer life expectancy, people today are more corporally isolated than at any other time in human history. Just like we crave food when we are hungry, and crave sleep when we are tired, so we crave touch when we are lonely, for to be lonely is to be vulnerable. When someone is out of our orbit, we do not say that we are out of sight, but out of touch; and we feel that we ought to reach out and make contact. More than a mere superfluity or indulgence, human touch is, like food and sleep, a visceral need that is increasingly being met by third parties such as massage therapists and even professional cuddlers.
As a wine taster, I used to think that smell was the most neglected of our senses. But in our society touch is even more so. In the 1960s, Sidney Jourard, a psychologist at the University of Florida, observed the behaviour of couples in coffee shops around the world. He found that, in the space of an hour, couples in Puerto Rico touched each other 180 times. This compared to 110 times in Paris, just twice in Florida, and not at all in London. Jourard also found that French parents and their children touched three times more than their American counterparts.
The fear of touch in northern, Anglophone countries is deep-seated. In Victorian England and 19th century America, people took to the language of flowers, or floriography, to fly feelings that could not otherwise have flown. In a book on child-rearing, first published in 1928, the eminent and influential American psychologist John B. Watson (made famous by his Little Albert experiment) advised:
Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight… In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.
Still today, many people flinch if the person returning their change accidentally brushes their hand. Generally speaking, the fear of touch is much greater in men. Touch is seen as soft and effeminate, and many men are keen to appear macho or at least masculine.
With women, they worry that their touch will be interpreted as a sexual advance. With other men, they fear that it will raise questions about their sexuality, or that it will feel awkward, or that it will be rejected, or that they might enjoy it a little too much. With children, with many schools now operating a strict no-touch policy, they fear that it might raise suspicions of paedophilia.
So with the exception of handshakes and the occasional awkward "man hug," men must forego touch, especially warm, intimate touch, simply to reassure everyone, and perhaps also themselves, that they are decent, manly men.
As they take their first steps out of the warm embrace of their parents, boys might try to meet their need for touch through rough interaction with other boys. As they grow still older, they may, often out of sheer desperation, fumble into a relationship, putting all their physical needs into the hands of just one other ill-equipped person.
This places a lot of pressure on their partner and relationship. It also reinforces the link, and ambiguation, between touch and sex. Our libido can be assuaged with our hand in a way that our craving for touch cannot: as every sex worker knows, many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin. But it is possible to separate the two, even with people to whom we feel sexually attracted.
To undermine the taboos surrounding it, I’m going to build a positive case for touch.
Touch is the most primitive of all the senses. It is the first sense to develop and is already present from just eight weeks of gestation.
With a surface area, in adults, of around two square metres, our skin is the largest organ in our body. In a controversial experiment of the 1950s, the psychologist Harry Harlow offered maternally deprived infant Rhesus macaques a choice of two inanimate surrogate mothers made of wire and wood: one bare, and the other covered in cloth. The monkeys preferred the cloth-covered surrogate to the bare one, even when the latter was holding a bottle of food.
In 1994, the neurobiologist Mary Carlson, one of Harlow’s former students, traveled to Romania with the psychiatrist Felton Earls to study the effects of severe deprivation on the decretei children who had been abandoned to understaffed orphanages. Typical findings included muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements, behaviours very similar to those of socially deprived macaques and chimpanzees.
Recent studies have reinforced the developmental importance of childhood physical contact, which has been associated with, among others, better performance on cognitive and physical tests, a stronger immune system, and reduced aggression. All else being equal, premature infants that receive a course of massage therapy gain considerably more weight and spend less time in the hospital.
In adults, the benefits of gentle touch include: reducing stress and protecting against future stress, lifting mood and self-esteem, strengthening interpersonal bonds, improving cognitive function, and boosting the immune system. These effects are mediated by hormonal changes, not least a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the release of the "love hormone" oxytocin.
The benefits of touch accrue to the giver just as much as to the receiver, for it is impossible to touch without also being touched: people who give out "free hugs" in public places are, of course, also having their hugs returned. Even self-massage reduces stress levels, which probably explains why we are constantly touching ourselves: wringing our hands, rubbing our forehead, brushing our hair and scalp, stroking our neck and upper back, and so on. Even masturbation may be more about touch and stress than about lust itself: in a recent survey by TimeOut New York, 39 percent of office workers admitted to masturbating in the workplace—and that’s just those who admitted to it.
Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more alone, more vulnerable, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts. Therapy animals have become common in care homes, and, despite a lifetime of reservations, residents can be encouraged to hold hands or, for example, rub each other’s shoulders.
Just as we use speech and gestures to communicate, so we use touch. Words can say, "I love you," but touch can also say how and how much, and, at the same time, "I respect you," "I need you," and "thank you." For a long time, scientists somehow thought that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear even to them that touch can be the message, and that it can be more nuanced and sophisticated than either speech or gestures, and more economical to boot.
What’s more, touch is a two-way street, and a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us much more than their words ever could. Finally, while words can lie, or be taken for granted, primal touch is difficult to either ignore or discount.
Touch can also serve to convince and motivate, so long, of course, as it is natural and appropriate. One study found that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm while making the request. When the man kept his hand by his side, his success rate fell by as much as half. Students who, upon returning a library book, had their hand brushed by the librarian reported higher levels of satisfaction with the library and life in general, even if they had not been aware of having been touched. NBA teams with players who touched one another more, for instance, by high-fiving or hugging during a game, went on to win more games, with the more tactile players doing best. Students who had been touched by a teacher tended to participate more in class activities (shame about that strict no-touch policy), patrons who had been touched by a waitress tended to tip her more generously, shoppers who had been touched by a store greeter tended to spend more time in the store, and so on...
As a psychiatrist, I try to shake hands with all my patients and often use comforting touch in moments of distress—almost invariably to good effect. Touch relaxes the patient, makes her feel that she has been seen and heard, and builds a bond of trust. It makes her, and me, feel more human, and, as a result, I think, we remember each other.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Collins P: Fly in the Ointment. Solitarywatch.com, 13 July 2015.
Watson JB & Watson RA (1928): Psychological Care of Infant and Child. WW Norton & Company, Inc.
Carlson M & Earls F (1999): Psychological and endocrinological sequelae of early social deprivation in institutionalized children in Romania. In Carter CS et al (eds.): The Integrative Neurobiology of Affiliation. MIT Press.
Anthony J (2015): 39 percent of your coworkers masturbate at the office, according to our survey. TimeOut New York, 21 December 2015.
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