The Psychology of Touch

Have you ever considered how important your sense of touch is? Your skin is the largest organ in your body. Overall, you have about 5 million sensory nerve receptors in your skin to detect temperature, pressure, vibration, pain and pleasure. Further, there are over 2,500 receptors on ONE fingertip alone, making tactile sensations a remarkable way to communicate. Individuals who are blind read braille through their sense of touch, but they are not the only ones who use touch for communication. In a study at DePauw University in Indiana, blindfolded participants were able to convey eight different emotions, from gratitude to disgust to love, just through touch with about 70% accuracy.

Touch is also important for our mental health. American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated how important touch was with his studies on rhesus monkeys in the 1950s. In his experiment infant monkeys were raised with two surrogate mothers; one mother was made of wire, but provided milk for the infants, the other was made of soft terrycloth but did not provide food. He found that although the monkeys would go to the wire surrogate for food, they spent the overwhelming majority of their time clinging and cuddling with the terrycloth surrogate. In humans, the act of touching has proved to be vital as well. Gentle skin-to-skin touch of newborns stimulates brain development and helps the infant to feel loved and secure; it can lessen the amount of pain during teething, colic, constipation, and medical procedures, and contribute toward better sleep patterns. Children who are touched and embraced lovingly by their parents tend to develop into healthier and happier adults. Children and adults who experience nurturing touching have lower levels of depression, anxiety, aggression and impulsive behaviors. Even petting or cuddling with an animal can reduce stress and anxiety!

Pleasurable and warm types of touch, such as hugging, holding, caressing, kissing and stroking, are good for physical health too! Positive touching can lower blood pressure and increase levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, known as “the love hormone,” is frequently released during emotional bonding and romantic attachment. It is also sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” because it is released during hugs and affectionate touching. Oxytocin makes us feel calm, relaxed, trusting, generous, and affectionate. It promotes growth and healing, improves immune function, speeds up the repair of physical injuries, reduces inflammation and can reduce stress and anxiety. Oxytocin hormones are also released during childbirth, sexual intercourse, and massage. Oxytocin can be released by both the giver and receiver of pleasurable touch; the more oxytocin that is released, the more you will enjoy and desire to be touched. Touching then raises your oxytocin even more. It’s a positive, upward cycle.

What better reason do you need to reach out and touch (or be touched by) someone today? Your sense of touch can provide healing to the mind, body and soul.

Nia can be reached via email at askniab@gmail.com.

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