Even the slightest touch

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Health / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

Have you ever accepted a free hug from a stranger? How did it make you feel: warm, happy, comforted? Feeling connected to other people, especially through touch, has been shown to protect us from illness. And even something as simple as a pat on the back or a supportive touch on the arm can induce trust, and reduce pain and stress. Although often disregarded, touch has a profound influence on how we feel and act, and has the power to communicate complex emotions without words.

Free hugs

The ‘free hugs’ social movement, which began in Sydney, has spread across the globe. Image credit: still wanderer via Flickr

More than skin deep

Forget your brain or guts; skin is your largest body organ. If you could lay your skin out flat, it would measure about two square metres. In fact, your skin accounts for about 16 per cent of your total body weight. Skin does many important things, like protecting you from infection and keeping all your vital bits on the inside. But skin is also packed with nerves and receptors to connect you to the outside world. Before you ever heard or saw anything, you were feeling your surroundings in the womb: touch is the first sense to develop.

We have long known how important touch is to human and other animal babies. Back in the 1950s, rhesus monkeys denied access to a mother became anxious, withdrawn and depressed. When the infant monkeys were offered two different surrogate mothers, they chose a soft, cloth doll over a wire one that offered food and water. So important is touch, the monkeys chose the comfort of a soft pretend Mum over essential sustenance. Young rats denied grooming by their mothers grow up to be fearful and anxious. Not only that, these rats have weaker immune systems than rats groomed and licked by their mothers.

Human touch

‘Touch therapy’, or massage, has been shown to be vital for premature babies. Premature babies who receive massage for 5 – 10 days gain up to 48% more weight and stay in hospital for 3 – 6 fewer days than premature babies who aren’t massaged.

Hugging, a king among touches, has been shown to lead to a variety of benefits. You are less likely to get sick when exposed to the common cold if you have experienced lots of hugs. Hugging can also lower your heart rate and increase your oxytocin levels: oxytocin is also known as the love hormone.

Interestingly, when we have lost connection with someone, we refer to it as being out of touch, or having lost touch with someone. But there are clear cultural differences in what is considered normal when it comes to interpersonal touch. In a well-known study from the 1960s, a psychologist, Sidney Jourard watched friends chatting with one another in cafes around the world. During a one-hour conversation, friends in Puerto Rico touched each other around 180 times. In Paris, the average was 110 touches, while in London the average was zero.

Touching is trusting

Touch doesn’t have to be as overt as a hug to have an effect. Touching the arm or shoulder of someone for one or two seconds when making a request can strongly influence how that person responds.

For example, a simple touch to someone’s forearm makes it much more likely they will give money to a person on the street. If a waitress or waiter touches the arm of a customer in a restaurant, they get paid a higher tip and students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in an incidental (and generally unnoticed way) were twice as likely to participate in a class discussion.

It even works in the library: students whose hands were touched for a brief moment when being handed back their library cards said they liked the library more and were more likely to go back. This was true even if the student wasn’t aware the touch had occurred. Similarly, people rate someone trying to sell them a car more highly if the shopper has been touched by the salesperson. And people are more likely to give someone a free cigarette if the request is accompanied by a slight touch.

When scientists carefully watched the behaviour of players in the U.S. National Basketball League, they made an interesting observation. Teams including players who touched each other during a game to offer support (think high fives and fist bumps) performed better even after taking into account a whole lot of other factors.

The language of touch

Research has shown that we are also highly tuned to the unspoken words behind a seemingly simple touch. Participants in several experiments have been able to detect disgust, anger, fear, love, sympathy and gratitude from a one-second touch to their forearm from a stranger they could not see. Just good guesses? The study participants were able to label the right emotion at much better-than-chance levels. With 12 possible emotions to choose from, the chances of simply guessing the right emotion was 8%. But compassion, anger, love, gratitude and fear were all correctly interpreted more than half the time.

One slightly concerning finding from this study was that on the whole, women are good at ‘reading’ women’s emotions from touch and men do well at deciphering the emotions conveyed by the touch of other men. But when it comes to interpreting emotions expressed via touch across the gender divide, let’s just say we’ve got a lot to learn.

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