The Power of Touch

“Touch a touch a touch me, I want to feel dirty,” sings Janet of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame.  “You are healed!” says the T.V. minister who lays his hands on you. These are just two examples of how touch impacts us. We know that touch evokes feelings on a spectrum of good to bad. We also know that people experience touch in different ways and that the experience of touch, although not always positive, can be powerful.

Touch is the first sense we develop. It is an essential part of our human development and necessary for proper physical and psychological growth. In fact, according to Body Ecology, “the healing power of touch is so necessary for life that babies not touched regularly don’t grow and develop normally, and children who are not lovingly touched enough are more likely to be violent as adults.” As I ponder those words, I can’t help but remember watching a news special in the late 1980s/early 1990s about the many children in Romanian orphanages. As a product of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, these orphanages were filled to capacity and even looking through my television screen it was so evident that many, if not most, of those babies were not thriving.  What we later came to understand was that those babies were socially deprived. Touch stimulates multiple areas of the brain including the part that allows us to form attachments to others.  Due to the lack of stimulation, many of the children in those orphanages were unable to form healthy attachments to their adoptive parents, and had cognitive and social developmental issues—all because they weren’t touched, loved, hugged, and nourished.

“the idea that touch and affection is  always suspect is very sad.”

In a 2013 Psychology Today article by Rick Chillot,  he wrote about University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who studies touch and demonstrated in a 2009 study that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.” But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent.  

If we look at our culture today, we see this “touch phobia” all around us. Take a stroll through a park and count how many people are there alone, texting.  I believe that our decreased need to engage in interpersonal communication is a by product of this “touch phobia” phenomenon.  We have a generation of people who communicate in a type of isolation.  Our culture is becoming less affectionate and not only are we losing out on the benefits of regular interpersonal communication but physical interaction with others as well!  Statistically Generation Y is the most medicated generation in history.  Is it any wonder we are seeing such high rates of anxiety and depression?

Most of us live very busy lives always on the go. We have a constant barrage of thoughts going through our minds, a daily list of things to do that never seems to get smaller, and demands on our time from all corners of our lives be it work, home, school, etc..  All of this contributes to accelerated heartbeats, increased blood pressure and lower immune systems.  We forget that touch can have a healing aspect. Touch can ground us, help us feel more connected rather than separate from the things in the world that we see. A hug from a friend, a massage, a simple touch on the hand, these things have been shown to reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, help us sleep better and to feel more connected with people.

What if we thought of touch as a language?  We speak using the language of touch on a daily basis.  When I have a client in my office and they are holding their own hands, twirling their hair or picking up and touching an object, I often see someone telling me that they are anxious. When a baby cries, it’s instinctual for us to reach out and hold the child to calm them. A small child needing reassurance reaches out to their parent and through the touch of a hand receives the needed reassurance. A young couple on a date begin stroking each other’s hand or arm are expressing affection.

However, one word of caution: as with any other language, sometimes there is difficulty in translation.  Case in point, an article in the Berkely Science Review looks at the Hertenstein/Keltner study and found that even in this arena, men and women were on different planes. As Dr. Keltner explained in a public lecture, “When women tried to communicate anger to the man he had no idea what she was doing and he got nothing right. And when the man tried to communicate compassion to the woman she got zero right. She had no idea what he was doing.”

When I mentioned that I might be writing an article on the power of touch, a colleague said to me, “the idea that touch and affection is always suspect is very sad. Touch can be cathartic and to focus on only the bad moves us away from humanity’s best aspects.” Not only did I agree, but science concurs.  In a recent Huffington Post article by Diana Spechler, she quotes Dr. Shekar Raman, a neurologist, who explains touch in the following way: “A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others — on even the smallest physical level — the happier you’ll be.”

If you need further encouragement: we know that touch allows for a flood of oxytocin to flood our bodies which can make us warm, happy and calm. So, I would say that the next time you see a friend give them a hug, experience the warmth and spread a little joy!


Judi Culver

Judi Culver

Judi Culver, LPC, LMFT is the Clinical Specialist at The Family Center, an Approved Supervisor for AAMFT, a Clinical Fellow of AAMFT & an Adjunct at Lakeland College