Psychology of Touch


For most of us, the first nurturing touch we experience is when a mother holds her baby in her arms. A mother’s gentle touch communicates a sense of safety and comfort to the newborn. This early skin-to-skin contact stimulates neural connections and lays the foundation for the baby’s emotional and physical well-being. From the mother’s womb to the tomb, touch is crucial for our lifelong development.

Touch is the fifth sense of our body and is often overlooked compared to sight and hearing. It plays a crucial role in developing social bonds, emotional stability, communication and well-being. It is a primary language or means for spreading compassion and comfort.
So, why is touch so influential in psychology? How does physical touch or contact shape our development?

The Science Behind Touch

Research on touch has been going on for centuries. From a developmental perspective, a newborn cannot survive without touch. Research says skin-to-skin contact after one hour of birth helps regulate a newborn baby’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing and also reduces crying. It also helps mothers feel calm and relaxed by releasing neurotransmitters such as oxytocin. Research has shown that children deprived of touch have lower cortisol and growth development levels than children who have received the touch sensation.

Also Read: Importance of Physical touch and 9 easy ways to cope with its absence

One of the famous experiments on the need for touch and affection is conducted by Harlow. He conducted a series of experiments on baby monkeys, where he kept two unreal mothers made from wool and wire. He kept these two mother props in the same room; the one made from wire had food in hand. They saw that these baby monkeys spent more time with the mother made from cloth than the wired mother. Although, there was no food kept with the cloth mother still they were more attached to her. This showed how touch and affection are crucial for survival.

Many studies have used brain scanning technology to understand the biological role of touch. MRI studies show activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the caudate cortex during affective touch. Some physiological effects of touch include decreased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol and increased oxytocin.

Touch: A Way Of Communication

Communication through touch is a type of physical contact. Often, it expresses affection and care but can also make people uncomfortable and scared. It is important to use touch appropriately and be aware of an individual’s subtle verbal and non-verbal cues. We communicate with our loved ones by using touch. A research study conducted by Matthew Hertenstein found that individuals could effectively communicate 8 out of 12 emotions by using touch alone and suggested that touch can convey emotions better than facial expressions and voice. Our sense of touch can also communicate subconsciously. Touch is a form of non-verbal communication and can improve your rapport, empathy and trust. Touch as a form of communication includes a handshake, holding hands, shoulder pat, kiss on the cheek and giving a high-five. These can elicit either positive or negative feelings in the receiver.

Also Read: Good Touch and Bad Touch: An Important Topic for Kids

In some cultures, touch is not so ingrained in communication. North European and Far Eastern states are regarded as non-contact cultures. They engage in minimal physical contact with people they don’t know well. Whereas in Middle-East, Latin America and southern Europe, touch is considered a part of socializing. In India, people prefer not to touch if it can be avoided. For example, kissing someone on the cheek, holding hands is not so embraced in India. Indians say “Namaste” by folding their own hands rather than holding hands.

Is Touch Inappropriate In Therapy?

There has been a lot of debate on how touch can be incorporated into therapy. While touch in therapy isn’t unethical and can be used when it is likely to produce a positive therapeutic effect. The meaning of touch can be understood within the context in which it has been used. Touch in psychotherapy or other forms of therapy can be used only if it helps the client. Touch is considered to increase therapeutic alliance and is found to improve therapeutic outcomes. Research has found that a positive perception of touch is associated with reduced dissociative experiences in borderline personality disorder patients. (Löffler. A., 2022).

Here are some tips to remember when using touch in therapeutic settings:
  1. Use touch only when it is likely to benefit the client based on the contact and needs.
  2. Consider client’s history, background, culture symptoms gender to ensure that touch is appropriately used.
  3. Always get consent before using touch. Consent from the client is very important as a professional.
  4. Before using touch in therapy, think carefully about how the client may perceive and interpret touch.
  5. Touch should be under the client’s control, for their benefit, with clear boundaries.
  6. There should be no sexual intent behind using touch in your therapy.

Touch Therapy

Touch therapy is a form of energy healing like reiki, acupuncture, and tai chi. It works by channeling the hand’s energy to balance, unblock, or strengthen the client’s energy system. It aims to heal the patient holistically through positive energy. Touch therapy uses energy healing and helps the body to self-heal naturally. Practitioners believe that it helps in the recovery from injury or illness. Some of the benefits of touch therapy are as follows:

  1. It helps in reducing anxiety and stress.
  2. It speeds up the wound or injury healing process.
  3. It boosts immune functioning.
  4. It helps in reducing fatigue and improves sleep
  5. It relieves the side effects of chemotherapy and helps reduce nausea.
    People have reported that it helped them become more calm, and relaxed and facilitated in healing.

Some Facts

Effective uses of touch have been potential to modify the practice of medicine. For example, studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s helps them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
Tiffany Field has discovered that “massage therapy” or “touch therapy” has been beneficial in reducing pain in women who are pregnant and also relieving prenatal depression in both parents. He also suggests that children with autism who don’t like being touched by others have actually loved being massaged by a parent or therapist.

Also Read: Mindfulness: Why It’s Important and How to Practice

A research study by Nicholas Gueguen, a French psychologist has found that teachers who use touch like a pat on the shoulder in a friendly way with their students are likely to open up and speak in the classroom.

No Consent, No Touch!

We often discuss the importance of touch in our development, but for many touch can also become a source of fear and trauma. It is important to educate children about safe touch practices and empower them to say “NO” to unwanted touch. We must teach them to have control over their bodies, and no one has the right to touch them without consent. This should also be extended to children with functional needs to make them aware of their body rights and privacy. If children do experience inappropriate touch, we must not ignore it by saying it might be a mistake. Instead, we must provide them with compassion and support. It is also essential to take action against such things even though it involves a family member. Counseling can help them overcome the trauma and regain a sense of trust.
The mantra should be “NO CONSENT, NO TOUCH”.

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