We often underestimate our sense of touch and how sophisticated it really is. We know that our skin is the largest organ in/on our body, yet our awareness of our instinctive ability to interpret the emotions and states of mind of other humans around us based on this under-appreciated sense is quite limited. In spite of this apparent blind spot, our language includes many common idioms which include the word “touch”: being or staying in touch, out of touch, to touch base, to touch bottom, to find something touching…and many others. Because our society has evolved in a way which makes us afraid to get too close, threatening our jobs as teachers, caregivers, or simply office workers, we remain vigilant about touching people we know (even young children) and may miss out on a lot of stress-reducing pleasures and opportunities to build trust and attachment to others.
I was listening to an interview the other day on NPR (National Public Radio) with Zdenek Pelc, the owner of the only factory (GZ Media) to still press vinyl records in Lodenice, a small village in the Czech Republic. He has kept his factory and vinyl record presses going since the 1970’s and is now enjoying the benefits of the renewed interest in vinyl records. According to Mr. Pelc, people are tired of the impersonal nature of digital recordings, attributing the rebirth of vinyl to the need for people to have something to “touch”.
Another video on YouTube grabbed my attention with respect to touch as well. In the video, a rescue organization called Orangutan Outreach (redapes.org) introduces a female infant orangutan by the name of Rickina to a group of her young peers. She has never spent any time with other orangutans. Instinctively, all are curious about her, and move to touch her. Some nuzzle her and give her affection, others try to play with her. Her face shows pure amazement. The range of emotions the young orangutans display is quite amazing, and their need to touch in order to create connection is very beautiful.
It seems that as human beings we often underestimate our own need for touch – to be touched by others and to use our own sense of touch. When I was working in a public library, one of my coworkers told me about a study in which library patrons evaluated their experience in the library (customer service) more positively when a brief touch happened while handing their library card to the employee behind the desk. More often than not, the patron did not even notice their being touched, yet it influenced (positively) their interaction with the library personnel. When asked, their evaluation was very positive when touch occurred.
From a scientific perspective, production of the calming / bonding hormone oxytocin and lowering of heart rate are some of the immediate positive benefits of touch. Unconsciously, we touch and caress ourselves constantly to reduce some of the anxiety which assails us all throughout the course of our day. Instinctively, we reach to touch our hair, our necks, to hug ourselves, without giving these acts the slightest thought. We have all seen videos in which the great apes and monkeys, highly social animals such as ourselves, groom and caress one another to create cohesion and reduce conflict within their group. And when we as humans don’t have other human friends to give us affection, we often reach to our beloved furry friends, our pets, for the touch that they and we both crave. In fact, the popularity of pets today may indeed be due to the increasing physical distance between human beings and how challenging it is to live without touch.
Here are some excerpts from an article in Psychology Today: “The Power of Touch”, which explains how much information we are able to detect about others in our entourage through even the briefest of touches:
“Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated 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. “I was surprised,” Hertenstein admits. “I thought the accuracy would be at chance level,” about 25 percent.
Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at comminicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. “Everywhere we’ve studied this, people seem able to do it,” he says.
“With the face and voice, in general we can identify just one or two positive signals that are not confused with each other,” says Hertenstein. For example, joy is the only positive emotion that has been reliably decoded in studies of the face. Meanwhile, his research shows that touch can communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language, “but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions,” Hertenstein says.
It may also increase the speed of communication: “If you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something,” says Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. This immediacy is particularly noteworthy when it comes to bonding. “We feel more connected to someone if they touch us,” Guerrero notes.”
In short, touch is a gift which has been given to all living beings. When I touch my plants and talk to them, their leaves shine, the stems reach outward, and generally express vibrant health. When I reach out to pet my dog, she reaches out her snout and bumps it under the palm of my hand, begging for more pats, more attention, more touch. Without being touched or having the opportunity to touch others, we lose some of our vitality. It is as if touching recharges our hearts and souls and physically improves our ability to heal and to relate to others. Babies thrive when touched and feel reassured by a squeeze or a hugs. A parent instinctively knows to kiss a child when he or she skins a knee, knowing that the pain is reduced by that loving touch. The biology of love includes touch, and our cells are each responsive to this need which is programmed into each of us.
Perhaps we could work on incorporating more touch into our culture to help build empathy between people and cultures, to reduce the stress and anxiety that separation naturally creates. Becoming more aware of this natural gift of communication through touch may not replace texting, social media, or virtual encounters…but as a society when we talk about building community and improving quality of life for people everywhere, touch and the ability to touch others is something we all innately know how to do.