If you’re a hard core NPR listener like I am, you may have heard the Morning Edition show that aired last week with Michelle Trudeau talking about the health-promoting properties of touch. Yes, making physical contact with someone actually increases the body’s ability to experience enhanced physical, mental and emotional well-being. Really! Now I know that a lot of you who are reading this right now are saying, “Well, Duh! Doesn’t everyone already know that? That’s very old news.” Perhaps to some of us it is, but Michelle isn’t just offering some new age opinions and beliefs about the curative powers of touch, she’s got the science to back it up! And so does the New York Times, which three days later featured an article with a very similar theme.
The Times piece cited a study sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Health Institute that found that massage causes distinct bio-chemical changes in the body. The study, conducted by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles recruited a group of 53 adults and divided them into two groups, one of which experienced deep tissue Swedish massage and the other got a light massage treatment. The results?
Volunteers who received Swedish massage experienced significant decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in blood and saliva, and in arginine vasopressin, a hormone that can lead to increases in cortisol. They also had increases in the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of the immune system. Volunteers who had the light massage experienced greater increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with contentment, than the Swedish massage group, and bigger decreases in adrenal corticotropin hormone, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
The lead author of the study, Mark Hyman, MD, a self-identified “skeptic” called the results “intriguing and very, very exciting.” Ms. Trudeau’s began her report by making reference to the many other studies that have been done over the years that have demonstrated that”supportive touch” has been shown to have a variety of beneficial effects on people. For example, when a teacher touches a student on the back or arm, that student is more likely to participate in class. The more athletes hug their teammates, the better their game. Patients who are touched by doctors tend to like their doctors more. Waitresses who touch the shoulders of a customer generally get larger tips than those who don’t.
Tiffany Fields, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami and one of the world’s leading touch researchers cites the presence of Pacinian corpuscles that receive pressure stimulation and their receptors then send a signal to the brain. These signals then go directly to the vagus nerve located in the brain which then slows the heart down and decreases blood pressure. Field describes studies in which subjects were asked to perform something stressful like public speaking or a timed math test. The subjects’ partners were also a part of the study making physical contact with them when the researchers told them to. The results? The people who had been holding hands or were being hugged had a lower blood pressure and lower heart rate than those who hadn’t.
Hand-holding or hugging also results in a decrease in cortisol, according to Matt Hertenstein an experimental psychologist at DePauw University, who claims that “Just having somebody touching our arm or holding it buffers the physiological consequences of this stressful response”. Supportive touch also increases release of oxytocin, often referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” “Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, which basically promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding,” Hertenstein says. “It makes us feel close to one another and it really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people.”
Hertenstein says recent studies from England pinpointed an area in the brain that becomes highly activated in response to friendly touch. It’s a region called the orbital frontal cortex located just above your eyes. It’s the same area that responds to sweet tastes and pleasing smells. A soft touch on the arm makes the orbital frontal cortex light up, just like other rewarding stimuli, and the cascade of electrical impulses slows your heart and lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed and more soothed.”
So there you have it; scientific proof that supportive touch does much more than make you feel good (not that that isn’t enough!); it actually modifies our biochemistry and physiology, and enhances our immune system as well. And perhaps even more significantly, touch promotes a tendency to perceive others less adversarially, to be trusting rather than suspicious, and to be generally less defensive in our interpersonal interactions. Imagine what the planet might be like if our world leaders all received daily doses of supportive touch. “War rooms” might transform into massage studios and departments of defense might become departments of peace. The possibilities are inconceivable. Now if we can just figure out how to get our congressional representatives to stop arguing long enough to agree to something that might really benefit us all. But don’t get me started on that.