I often smile about the fact that my sense of touch may be one of my most developed senses while I live in a mostly touch deprived culture ~although being in southern California rather saves the day.
It is fascinating to me that we come into this world and perceive our environment vastly through the sense of touch, from in utero to being born, from infant to baby all the way to childhood, and yet it seems that for adults the sense of touch is a very delicate issue, one we tend to shy away from, specially from talking about.
In a glimpse and maybe to get more familiar with it, here are five aspects of touch you may appreciate:
1- Touch, an act of compassion
If compassion had a form of language it would be best spoken through touch.
Dacher Keltner’s research lab has been conducting studies for several years on how clearly touch communicates compassion. It reveals how significant this unique layer of communication is, in addition to visual and verbal expression.
In the last stages of life for instance, someone may not be able to speak nor smile and the use of mindful touch has shown to help decrease pain and alleviate depression.
It is also a beautiful way of being present and connect with the other.
2- Touch, a social organ
Our skin is the largest organ in our body and yet we typically know more about the cardiovascular system while we have not even heard of the word integumentary. Mechanically, the skin presents layers of neural receptors to help identify what type of touch we experience and translates it to the brain. These nerve endings have fancy names like Merkel, Meissner, Pacinian or Ruffini corpuscles, which sounds more like an elaborate Italian menu.
Touch is part of a brilliant and complex somatosensory system that helps us decode and label our tactile experience with the external world. It reinforces connection, reciprocity and promotes cooperation. Safe touch also signals trust, a significant aspect of relationships.
In his latest book about touch, neurobiologist David Linden explains how “doctors who touch their patients are rated as more caring, and their patients have reduced stress-hormone levels and better medical outcomes. Even people with clipboards at the mall are more likely to get you to sign their petitions or take their surveys if they touch your arm lightly.”
3- Touch deprivation
How does it affect you when you don’t get touch?
Tiffany Fields and her team at the Touch Research Institute in Miami, Florida have gathered many studies and have ongoing researches about the benefits of touch therapies.
A classic example about touch deprivation is the one of infants and babies placed in orphanages in eastern Europe during and after World War II. The basic needs of the newborns were being met (feeding and changing diapers) but they were rarely held and nurtured. Many of them died.
It has been studied and recognized since how crucial touch is to a child’s development. This form of communication affects the way a child develops mentally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. And in the case of premature babies, touch therapies have demonstrated how it helps increase their weight by 47%.
4- Touch therapies
A touch therapy is a type of therapeutic treatment in which the therapist uses non-invasive hands-on techniques. Touch therapies include massage therapy, craniosacral therapy, energy work and many others, and can help greatly with physical and mental ailments.
A therapeutic touch activates the vagus nerve, the organic anti-inflammatory system of our body, it calms the cardiovascular system and leads to increased levels of oxytocin, one of the feel good hormones. Healing touch can not only relief pain and improve physical health, it also decreases anxiety and stress related disorders like insomnia or headaches.
Therapeutic touch is a form of attention and has the ultimate purpose of encouraging the natural healing process of the body.
5- From Touch to Perception
If you were to extend your sense of touch with your imagination you can have a glance of the impact that you have on your environment.
Have you ever been in a situation where you feel great, you are in a good mood, and you meet with someone who feels the complete opposite, wether it is deep sadness, anger or any other negative emotion? Without any physical contact, observe how much the other person’s state has an imprint on you, and vice versa, how much of an imprint of your whole body-energy you leave on the person you are meeting. Following me? Now imagine how amplified these feelings would be if actual physical contact, mindful touch, was involved in the situation. It simply gives you an idea of how much information is transmitted through touch, particularly through our amazingly dexterous hands.
“Touch comes before sight, before speech.
It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
– Margaret Atwood
Looking to develop your sense of touch and practice the language of compassion?
There are countless opportunities to gently touch the world around you.
Here are a few local places looking for volunteers: