It is a sad legacy of Communist Romania that we now recognize how essential touch is to human development and health. Clues emerged from the controversial experiments that Harry Frederick Harlow performed on rhesus monkeys deprived of maternal contact. That the presence or absence of touch stimulation was part of the observed effects was illustrated by the preference for these young monkeys for surrogates made of cloth rather than wire. The many orphans who were deprived of human contact in the nurseries of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania exhibited not just profound deficits in social development but also changes in the actual structure and function of the brain.
The research of Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at university of Miami has amplified our understanding of the importance of touch. In her book Touch, Second Edition (2014), Fields relates the evidence for the role of touch in our health and well-being. Measures of blood pressure, heart rate, immune function, and pain relief underscore that touch is a direct way to channel the mind-body connection—whether one is receiving or giving touch. It doesn’t take a relaxing massage or loving sex to lower the levels of cortisol and increase oxytocin. Studies show that simple hand-holding, hugs or a touch on the shoulder can produce beneficial changes. Fields points out that touch has a cultural aspect, and Americans, from childhood to old age, don’t get touched as much as humans in other cultures.
Skin, the largest organ in our bodies, is a wondrous sensor of external stimuli and conduit of the information to our brains. This organ developed early in the evolution of life and is one of the earliest to form in the embryo. In her book, Skin: A Natural History (2006), anthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University, transitions from a discussion of the structure and function of human skin to some of its unique aspects: its sweatiness, range of colors and use as a tapestry for self-decoration. She tells us:
Skin mediates the most important transactions of our lives. Skin is key to our biology, our sensory experiences, our information gathering, and our relationships with others.
In his book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind (2015), David Linden, neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, describes the connection between touch and our emotional reactions that affect how we develop, relate to others and maintain our health. Linden describes new scientific tools that explain how touch informs our experience of the world.
From consumer choice to sexual intercourse, from tool use to chronic pain to the process of healing, the genes, cells, and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience.
Are you getting touched enough?