Touch, One of Our 5 Senses
Touch is essential to our well-being. A June 2022 edition of National Geographic includes an article The Power of Touch by Cynthia Gorney. This article updates us on the importance of touch and what is occurring in the development of touch sensation in artificial limbs, among other things. Touch is one of our five basic senses, and one we cannot live without. Though scientists are suggesting more than five senses. I’ll leave that for another time.
Why is touch so important to our well-being? Science explains a lot. However, I think the important thing is the positive feelings we have with pleasant touch, even if we do not know the science, we know the feeling. We also know unpleasant touch and the associated feelings. Touch sensation warns us of dangers; hot, sharp, hard, cold, or sticky. What happens when we are deprived of touch?
Isolation, Quarantine, Solitary Confinement
As a nurse I often cared for people in isolation, and as a patient I have been in isolation more than once. What does that do to our ability to heal? What happens to our mental and emotional health? What happens to the health of criminals or prisoners of war when put in solitary confinement? Hospital isolation and quarantine allow for some interaction with humans, and some touch. In prisons isolation does not offer interaction or touch. How does this affect us in the long term?
I know when I was most recently in hospital isolation, and extremely ill, my mental health suffered greatly. I was completely aware of this and despite how ill I was, I just wanted to get out of that tiny room and be home with people I loved, and my dog.
The United Nations has proclaimed solitary confinement for more than 15 days is torture.
Long-term Effects of Touch Deprivation
Our skin is our largest organ. The skin sends touch sensations to our brain. Pleasant touch sends a signal to our brain causing the release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the ‘feel good’ hormone, or ‘bonding’ hormone and stimulates the release of other ‘feel good’ hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. (Reference)
What happened during COVID with the decrease in touch that most of us experienced? I know at one point I decided I just didn’t care, I needed to hug my son. I hadn’t seen him in months and wasn’t going to see him again for months. I needed to hug him and be hugged by him. How many other people have had similar experiences?
We have been hearing about the mental health concerns resulting from the absence of human interaction over the last two-plus years. Considering what I have been reading about touch, this is not surprising. I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between lack of touch, isolation, and long COVID. Afterall, we have been told about the effect on the immune system when we go without positive touch.
Lack of touch can cause stress, anxiety, or depression. When we are stressed the body releases cortisol, another hormone. Cortisol release causes our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate to increase, and can also cause muscle tension.
Human Development and Touch
Touch plays a significant role in our developmental well-being, both mental and physical. The importance begins from before we are born and continues throughout our life. Research has suggested the importance of touch in bonding with our babies. When my daughter was born, very prematurely in 1967, weighing only 2 pounds 4 ounces, we were not allowed to touch or hold her for 3 months, when she was nearing the time to come home. I have no idea how this might have influenced her ongoing development, but I know it was heart-breaking for me. Today, even very premature infants are held, skin-on-skin. Ferber, Feldman, and Makhoul, 2008 stated “Skin-to-skin contact [in] [sic] even in the first hours after birth has been shown to help regulate newborns’ temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and decreases crying”.
Research, as far back as 1915, identified the correlation between death under the age of 2 was ‘due to failure to thrive, related to lack of touch and affection (Chapin 1915; cited in Montagu 1986, p. 97).
Seniors Need Touch Too
Seniors often live alone and as we age many of our friends are no longer with us. Thus, seniors can go for lengthy periods of time without human touch. I have been told by friends in Massage Therapy and Acupuncture Therapy there are many senior clients who come simply to be able to enjoy human touch. Think about how much that was decreased during COVID? I’d love to see some stats on the mental well-being of our senior citizens during that period.
Research indicates touch is important for the elderly, especially those with dementia. Compassionate touch has been deemed important for quality of life and for the elderly suffering with dementia, and at end of life. Touch is a form of communication we all know.
Touch boosts the immune system, improves physical health, and benefits emotional health, and is a social interaction connecting one person to another.
Our culture has limited the amount of casual touching deemed appropriate. As we consider the importance of touch let’s consider how we can increase touch in our life, without running into sexual harassment charges. One of the main things to remember is the importance of consent.
Some of the ways we can increase touch in our lives is by getting massages, manicures, pedicures, or having our hair done. We can make a point of shaking hands, if both parties are ok with that, even if it means using hand sanitizer following. Ask friends if it is ok to hug them, or to hold their hand while talking.
Is it ok to lay a hand on another person’s hand, arm, or shoulder? If unsure ask. These are gestures among friends that I consider important to the relationship. My husband and I make a point of hugging and usually hold hands while watching a moving or sitting visiting with others.
Touch and the State of the World
While reading for information about touch I also discovered a proposed correlation between lack of touch and violent crimes. An affectionate society tends to be a non-violent society according to an article in Humanism by Joe.
As mentioned earlier, touch causes the release of oxytocin. Some studies suggest that oxytocin leads us to feeling more generous, empathetic, nurturing, more collaborative, and more grateful.
Do you suppose if we spent more time hugging, we might have a more peaceful world? But don’t forget to get consent before you hug.