The Power of Touch (in a digital age)
The concept of touch often conjures sexual connotations, or images of simpery hug-related greeting cards (probably with an illustrated bear on the front). In reality, it’s one of the few human necessities, but in these days of digital and diarised existence, it’s one of many things being put on the back-burner.
The stratospheric rise in the popularity of virtual connections, like WhatsApp voice notes and emojis, over face-to-face communication gives an insight into the current human psyche. Yet, while our lives are changing rapidly, our brains and bodies are not. Anxiety and stress are skyrocketing, with all kinds of suggested causes; from social media and 24/7 email availability, to life choices. With a multitude of suspects, our need for touch is mostly ignored.
Nowadays it’s feasible not to be touched by anyone for days. Arguably this is something of an English affliction. The now-questioned and somewhat aged (though anecdotally interesting ‘coffee house’ study, piloted by Sidney Jourard in the 1960s), looked at how many times pairs of people in cafés around the world made tactile contact. In an hour, there was zero interaction between people in London, compared to 180 instances in San Juan, Puerto Rico and 110 in Paris.
As humans, the importance of touch, even from people as stereotypically contact-averse as us Brits, can be seen not only in research but in our language and phrases like ‘reach out’ and ‘get in touch’, meaning to reconnect. For more primal proof, witness the hardwired need for human connection in babies that leads them to hold a parent’s finger from birth, while a lack of physical attention can result in early death.
But what’s behind this psychological need? Though how our brains process touch is a subject of ongoing research, chartered psychologist Dr Carie Schuster says it can be explained by “The sensory response it stimulates releasing chemical signals that help people feel calm. These interactions create oxytocin, a hormone related to involvement in social interactions, with humans and pets, which produce stress relief and feelings of connectedness.”
Within our romantic relationships the need deepens, with studies showing closer couples touch more. A team of Harvard researchers, lead by Christopher Oveis, interviewed 69 pairs for five minutes and found those who scored higher in frequency and length reported greater relationship satisfaction. Though it’s anecdotal, it supports the theory that touch communicates the message of “I’m on your side”, as well as the rush of hormones.
The effect on the quality of relationships is also observable within teams, where research published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion showed good teams tended to be “touchier” than bad ones. Schuster says: “Though touch from a stranger can produce the fight or flight reaction, if welcomed it can reduce normal defence mechanisms and lead to good outcomes, like endorphins (love hormones), reduced cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased oxytocin (another love hormone).”
Moreover, it activates the vagus; this is the tenth and longest cranial nerve, spanning from the brain stem to part of the colon, and connects the brain to the body. More specifically, it also acts as the conduit for the parasympathetic nervous system to the main abdominal organs. Yoga teacher Viriam Kaur, a Kundalini Yoga Meditation and relaxation coach, who runs vagus nerve workshops, hails its impact upon our lives. “It is our social engagement system ultimately and the newest part of our autonomic nervous system.”
But it’s not just a social or romantic context which stimulates these reactions in our bodies, but also through massage, physiotherapy, other hands-on treatments and even haircuts. As Kaur says, “massage and touch are one of myriad ways to increase vagal tonicity.” To back this theory up, research from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, found regular massage helped reduce anxiety.
According to Scarlet Crawley, founder of bodywork studio MASAJ, “Touch is vital to humans, which is one of the reasons massage is making its way into the mainstream. We’re all too busy to focus on our own bodies, and therefore brains, and it takes its toll on our physical and mental health.”
The problem in our debilitatingly digital age is we’re swapping human-to-human contact for device-based interaction. “When we spend too long in the online world, we’re substituting the long-term powerful effect of the ‘hug hormone’ oxytocin for the short-term ‘hit’ of dopamine, the ‘do it again’ hormone,” explains Tanya Goodin, digital detox specialist, author of OFF and Stop Staring At Screens, and host of new podcast It’s Complicated.
“Oxytocin is arguably the most powerful, but it’s also the one that takes the longest to build up. Often called the ‘trust’ hormone, it’s present in the strong bond between mother and child, and also builds up between partners over time after the initial giddy ‘in love’ stage. It’s what makes break-ups so gut-wrenchingly painful and, if you’ve ever witnessed a child separated from its mother – even temporarily – you’ll know its strength.”
Worryingly the body’s reaction to social media triggers similar hormone responses to that of a hug. “When we get ‘likes’ or online interactions from a stranger or vague acquaintance, our brain fires off dopamine, which interestingly is also the chemical associated with addiction,” continues Goodin. “This feels great so we keep going back for more. But screen interaction can’t build oxytocin, which relies on physical presence, so we’re building one at the expense of the other. Nothing we do in the online world can replace that deep chemical bond of trust and love and, simply put, we need the power of touch as much as we need food and water in order for us to survive.”
As Canadian author Margaret Atwood said: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last and it always
tells the truth.” So, the upshot? Get a dog, ditch your phone and go out on a limb.