Earlier this week, feeling sad and preoccupied by some recent events, I was making my way in a crowd of people to take my turn on an escalator that was inadequate for the demand. My head was elsewhere. My feet shuffled along. And then, out of nowhere, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, and brought back to the present, understood with this simple gesture that I was being invited to go next. A few seconds of touch opened a floodgate of emotion and released the tension I didn’t even know I was holding.
More Americans live alone than ever before, and friendly touch has become taboo everywhere from schools and offices to public spaces. Perhaps another case of good intentions not taking us where we meant to go. The truth is that touch is profound and central to our mental health and wellbeing. And lack of touch may be more serious than we think.
Touch is essential for healthy attachment. In the 1950’s Harry Harlow conducted seminal research with rhesus macaques that examined the development of attachment. It is one of those research programs that every Psychology 101 class teaches because of its methodological elegance and its astounding findings. Working with orphaned monkey infants, Harlow wondered: what mattered most in developing secure attachment? The milk or the touch of the mother? He built a wire frame “mother” that provided milk and a soft cloth “mother” that was comforting to the touch. The orphans overwhelmingly preferred the mother who provided physical comfort over the mother who carried the milk. It was a watershed moment in understanding that touch is not just “nice” but essential to developing healthy attachment.
Harlow’s work has spawned generations of research on the ways in which touch promotes healthy emotional development and social attachments. What is remarkable is that this physical touch also has clear impact on brain development and social learning in humans. In a recent study, for example, 4-month-old human infants learned to discriminate a stranger’s face when their parents provided gentle stroking, but they did not when they experienced a non-social tactile stimulation.
Touch deprivation can be seen in the brain. Sometimes the unfortunate circumstances of politics and history stage naturalistic studies that teach us about the human experience. We would never choose the conditions, but we should certainly learn from them. So it is with the wave of orphanages in parts of Eastern Europe that were overwhelmed by the numbers of children in their care during the latter half of the twentieth century. The children had a roof over their heads and were fed and clothed but they were rarely held or touched. These conditions were associated with severely impaired cognitive development and attachment disorders. And the scars could be seen on their brain scans, which showed decreased white matter. Similar data are emerging about the deleterious consequences of strategies like solitary confinement in prison. Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning describes the experience of solitary confinement as “‘no-touch’ torture” – emphasizing how the lack of physical contact contributes to the inhumanity of solitary confinement.
Touch for the tiniest. Until recently, premature infants were often deprived of physical and sensory stimulation because fears of infection prioritized sterile conditions over human connection. New parents peered through glass windows to see their “incubator” babies. Times have changed and now massage therapy and keeping little ones swaddled skin to skin with mom or dad – called “kangaroo care” – are at the top of the doctor’s orders. These forms of touch help premies gain significantly more weight, increase bone density and are associated with shorter hospital stays. How does simple touch do this? Maybe the underlying mechanisms have something to do with increases in vagal activity (which reduces heart rate and calms us) and gastric motility (easing digestion).
Rats teach us about touch and DNA. Studies in rats have shown that mom rats that lick and groom their pups more than others have pups that turn out healthier and less anxious. An influential study in 2004 showed that the pups whose moms licked and groomed less had a specific gene that was “turned down” through methylation, meaning the gene doesn’t express to the same degree. This gene, the glucocorticoid receptor, is associated with the stress response system. This effect on the stress response gene was reversed when the affected pups were taken from their less nurturing mothers and given to foster rat moms who licked and groomed them more. Thanks to rats, we are learning more and more about the ways the environment can impact what our genes do.
Hugging touches more than our hearts. The act of embracing floods our bodies with oxytocin, a “bonding hormone” that makes people feel secure and trusting toward each other, lowers cortisol levels, and reduces stress. Women who get more hugs from their partners have higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure and heart rates, according to research from the University of North Carolina. But a touch from anyone you’re close to works, too. Even holding a “huggable robot” while communicating via phone with a loved one lowers cortisol more than simply talking on the phone.
Grateful for that gentle hand on my shoulder, and always a fan of a good hug, I think we still have a lot to learn about how the power of touch supports our mental health and healing.