The human touch: connecting two or more humans
Human touch has been important throughout history and is vital to our wellbeing- but, why? What is the human touch and how does it affect our bodies, brains, and hormones? What are the benefits of the human touch? Find out this and more in this article!
What is the human touch?
The term human touch stems from interpersonal touch which means the connecting of the skin of two or more humans. Touch is defined as coming into contact with.
The human touch has changed remarkably throughout history. In Medieval times, entire noble families had large beds and would sleep back to back in the same bed in the dead of winter in order to maintain heat. However nowadays, most of us would regard sleeping in a bed with our parents, siblings, maids, servants, and knights (if we still had them) as too much for many reasons- one of them being too much touching. We would view it as uncivilized probably.
Throughout the centuries since the Medieval times, the human touch is becoming less and less common due to changing cultural values and new technology. Who needs to give someone a kiss or high-five when they can send an emoji?????✋
Human Touch: Touch as a sense
Touch is the first sense that we develop as humans. Our somatic sensory system is responsible for our sense of touch. We have receptors (for touch) that are in our skin. These receptors are known as touch receptors or pressure receptors. When we touch something or something touches us, our receptors activate. We also have nerve receptors that allow us to feel pain and temperature. When these combine our nerve receptors and our touch receptors, we are able to completely be able to touch something and know that is it hot or cold, hard or soft, smooth or bumpy.
People are able to communicate anger and sadness, as well as happiness and joy, through touch. The researchers in a study done by the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University found that touch communicates distinct emotions. The researchers sat pairs of people at a table with a curtain between them- this way they couldn’t see each other. One participant, known as The Encoder, was asked to communicate a specific emotion like anger, sympathy, fear, or disgust, by touching the other person’s arm. The person who was being touched, known as The Decoder, was asked to identify the emotion. The results were 78% accurate and showed that while neither person could see or talk to each other, they were able to know a specific distinct emotion just by touch. However, this isn’t just an American thing- they also tested this in Spain (which has an even higher accuracy rate), the UK, Turkey, and Pakistan!
We are wired to be touched. A study published in 2012 used fMRI scans to measure the brain activation of heterosexual males while they watched a video of a man or a woman who seemed to be touching them on the leg. With no surprise, the men rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. The fMRI scans showed that the primary somatosensory cortex in our brain responds more sharply to a woman’s touch than a man’s. However, the videos were fake- it was always a woman who was touching the legs of the subject.
What are the effects of the human touch?
New research is suggesting that even a simple and fleeting touch can have a powerful impact on us emotionally and socially. Science shows that people who are briefly touched when asked to do something are more likely to agree and comply with the request. Our skin contains a type of receptor whose entire function is to bring out emotional responses. When we are being touched by another person, our brains aren’t set up to be objective about the qualities of that touch. Rather, the entire experience of the touch is affected by the social evaluation of the person touching us.
There are two types of touch- positive touch and negative touch. Each category affects us in distinct ways.
Positive human touch stimulates the hippocampus– the part of the brain essential for memory. Positive touch also induces lots of healthy hormones. There is evidence that touch, even the most simple touch in order to stimulate the pressure receptors of the skin, triggers the release of oxytocin– the hormone that decreases stress and is known as the cuddle hormone because it brings with it a sense of attachment and trust. Even positive self-touching- like a self-massage, is proven to lower our cortisol, a stress hormone, levels. The greatest part of the human touch is that you can’t touch without being touched. Many of the physiological benefits that happen to the person being touched also happen to the person doing the touching. Studies have shown that the person hugging gets just as many benefits as the person being hugged.
Negative human touch can be detrimental. Considering how astounding the power of a positive and loving touch can be, the invasive and negative touch have a power just as strong, but rather horrific. Hormonally, victims of child sexual abuse will experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and are twice as likely to experience sexual victimization again throughout their lifetime.
Human touch and depression, loneliness
Loneliness is terrible and has consequences like cardiovascular disease, the development of Alzheimer’s, and can be a strong indicator of a shorter life duration. The loneliness among Americans has increased 17% within the last decade. There’s a huge connection between depression and loneliness. Although it’s not 100% clear whether depression is a cause of loneliness or loneliness is a cause for depression, more and more research is showing that depression is a consequence of feeling lonely.
According to science, the best remedy for loneliness is physical contact and touch. A massage is proven to take away some level of loneliness. Pet’s are also said to be soothing and beneficial to our well-being.
The deprivation of human touch- Skin Hunger
Just like a lack of water and food have their negative effects, so does the lack of affection. This lack of affection is known also as skin hunger among those who study it. In a study of 509 adults, those who are skin hungry (deprived of human touch) are less happy, more lonely, more likely to experience stress and depression, and have worse health in general. People who have deprived of human touch also experience more anxiety and mood disorders as well as secondary immune disorders (non-genetic disorders). They are more likely to have alexithymia, as well.
Children and the human touch
Touch is the first sense we develop when we are kids. We are never touched more than when we are kids. This is because our proxemics, our comfort level with psychical contact and closeness, develops during childhood. However, a mother’s touch is the most important touch to a child because it enhances the bond and attachment between a mother and her child. The University of Miami has linked a mother’s touch to mitigating pain when infants are given a blood test. They also found that a mother’s massage betters sleep, reduces irritability, and increased sociability in infants as well as improved the growth of preemies.
What goes on at home also has a huge role in how we grow up in terms of being touchy. Some studies have shown that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types- possibly because some religions view certain kinds of touch as inappropriate or sinful.
Adults and the human touch
Touch and how often it’s used differs from cultures and climates. Warm climates tend to bring about cultures that are freer about touching than colder climates. Think about the Germans and the Greeks, for example. It’s thought that this is due to higher temperatures increase the availability of skin. It’s been proven that it’s rewarding to touch someone who’s skin is showing or if they’re wearing thin clothing so they can feel the touch.
By the time we are adults, we have been conditioned by our culture, parents, and society to know that touch raises the stakes- especially when it comes to connectivity. Sometimes our connection with a stranger grows even when we don’t notice being touched by them. Some studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches can yield bigger tips for waitresses, people shop and buy more if they’re touched by the store greeter, and strangers are more likely to help someone if they request is accompanied by a touch. While some people in these studies didn’t even remember or know of being touched, they felt there was a connection, as if they like that person more.
Marriage, relationships, and the human touch
There is growing evidence that a touch from a partner is a natural buffer to stress. Because of the benefits of the relationship of being touched and doing the touching, one published paper proposed a sequence of 12 behaviors that increase intimacy that most romantic and intimate couples follow- whether they know it or not. The first three are eye-to-body contact, eye-to-eye contact, and speaking. The other nine all have to do with touch- beginning with hand holding, then kissing, then sexual intimacy. Public Displays of Affection (PDA) are all over the place- but that’s a good sign! When a couple is holding hands or have their arms wrapped around each other, it shows that the relationship is intensifying.
Touch is essential to the well-being of our relationships. However, research shows that touching in relationships decreases over time. It rises at the beginning of the relationship, peaks in the early stages of marriage, and then lessens with time. Partners try to adjust to and find an equilibrium in the other person’s touching habits. An inability to find a common comfort zone tends to break apart a relationship early on. Many couples in long-term marriages find that touching reaches an almost one-to-one ratio. Science has found that the indicator of a long and healthy relationship doesn’t have so much to do with how much you touch your partner, but more with how often your partner touches you in response to your touch.
The language of human touch
Touch is a language- and we know it instinctively. However, it can be a confusing language that we don’t always know how to use well. We begin to learn the language of touch when we are first born- it’s how we bond with our mothers. Sadly, there is no phrase or guidebook to help us translate and navigate the language of human touch. There is a multitude of ways to show any given emotion through human touch. Furthermore, the same touch is interpreted differently depending on the context- a touch on the arm at the doctors’ verse at a nightclub.
In one study on touch as a language, the participants consistently underestimate their ability to communicate via touch. Touch can be more effective as a communication method for expressing emotion than vocal or facial methods. Back in the day, scientists used to believe that touch was just a means of enhancing messages that were signaled through speech. Essentially, touching someone on the arm while consoling them was simply a way to make the consolation more effective. However, it turns out that touch is a much more sophisticated, precise, and nuanced way to communicate our emotions. Furthermore, touch can increase the speed of our communication, too.
Benefits of the human touch
There are many reasons that being touched- being skin-on-skin, is beneficial and healthy. A few of those reasons include:
- To feel connected to others and bond because we are social beings. Some connection comes from simple conversation, but an important role in connection and communication is touch.
- Touch lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, and speeds up recovery times from surgeries and illnesses. Studies prove that those who feel touching regularly often have a lower blood pressure. The best part is: pets count! So, whether or not you’re petting the dog and cat or your friend gently touches your arm, it’s beneficial!
- Touch reduces anxiety. It has been proven that touch can make us feel not so alone, less anxious, and more secure, which in turn reduces anxiety.
- Touch gives us the sensory input that we are all craving. Scientists are discovering how important and vital it is to use all of our physical senses in order to have a healthy brain and emotional development. So, go ahead and run your fingers and toes through the sand!
- Touch encourages optimism. Touch scientifically makes people feel more connected to others. A connection which can make people feel more optimistic and less cynical.
How does touch help you? Let us know in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.