The Power of Touch: Humanity's First Language
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
How many times have you been touched today?
How many high fives have you given?
Have you received a hug?
Have you given someone a pat on the back?
Finally, what do you consider to be a "fair" amount of time to be touched?
Trust me I know - the above questions are difficult to answer, and it may be hard to remember the last time that you did any of those things. For the purpose of today's blog, I want to use this questions to spark the idea of one topic: sensation. Touch is the first sensation that you acquire in your life - crazy right? Babies can actually feel the sensation of touch in the womb. Touch begins to develop around 8 weeks in the womb and simultaneously begins to develop neural networks that respond to touch.
Think about this for a moment: our hands are at the end of a long limb that gives us the ability to not only touch, but to communicate words, emotions, and ideas, as well as interpret our environment. Touch makes humans view others as nicer, and environments as more friendly. The sensation of touch is actually 10 times stronger than any verbal contact or interaction.
TOUCH THROUGHOUT HISTORY:
One of the first times that the incredible need for touch was recorded in history was in Ancient Romania. They noted the astonishing defects that children expressed when they grew up without a mother's touch. Not only did the children have psychological issues, but they were also physically stunted in growth.
Fast forward thousands of years to modern day society to the dreaded "good game" high five at the end of your favorite childhood sport. But I bet you did not know that this had more to do with psychology than it does sportsmanship... Scientists have studied the affect of touch on team sports on the basketball court. As you watch a game, you are able to notice tons of high fives and players circled up to pump each other up on the court. What they found was that touch not only made teammates feel closer, but it predicted success over the season for all NBA teams.
Shopping and Consumerism
Finally, the affect that touch has on how much we spend. Another research study indicated that customers who were touched by servers, meaning a simple touch on the shoulder while an order was being taken, urged customers to increase the amount they were planning to tip a waiter. The same study showed that when customers were touched by store greeter, they tend to buy more - and the extraordinary part is: they usually do not remember being touched.
BIOLOGICAL NEED FOR SURVIVAL
Humanity cannot flourish or survive without touch, and with the examples above, it is easy to see that it is a necessity for biological and physiological need for survival. Touch can affect reactions, how much one spends, and one's growth patterns - even if they do not remember the action of being touched or their mother cradling them as a child. One of the leaders in the field of sensation, Dr. Jane Anderson, phrased the interaction of touch and the brain perfectly:
"Think of skin as the external nervous system."
Skin has thousands of tiny receptors lining it to to receive all types of sensations: touch, sweat, pain, and pressure. When these receptors are activated, their attachment to neurons in the peripheral nervous system sends the message directly to the brain within seconds.
This is how we communicate, how we receive reward, and how we bond with others - but how do our brains perceive and process touch and sensation?
HOW WE FEEL SENSATIONS
What is the Somatosensory Cortex?
Every sensation that we feel is processed from the location of stimulation directly to the brain. The somatosensory cortex is made up of brain tissue that is responsible for all sensations that we feel depending on different areas on our bodies. Note: the image below shows only one side of the somatosensory cortex. The somatosensory cortex is in fact bilateral, (located on both sides of the brain).
When someone touches you, your pressure receptors are stimulated and the message is sent to the somatosensory cortex. Next, oxytocin, (the hormone responsible for lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol), is then released back into the blood stream. The brain interprets it as trust and a positive interaction, and is perceived as reward. Touch is the main reason why we build relationships and feel close to others.
This photo may make you uncomfortable - I do not blame you, it also made me feel uneasy when I first saw him four years ago. It is weird to see the human body represented based on sensation. This figure is referred to as the "somatosensory homunculus," which is Latin for "little person." This figure represents the somatosensory cortex's neuronal distribution. What that means is that in the small red area in the image above, there are touch neurons devoted to specific areas on our bodies.
As you can see, some body parts are more used than others; but, it makes sense when we break it down. The hands, genitals, feet, and mouth are the largest on the body in regards to sensation. Why is this? Well, think about what you do in a day. Whether you go to work, are an athlete, or are a student, you consistently use your feet to walk, your hands to eat, write, etc., genitals for arousal and reward, and your mouth to communicate with others. Since these areas are the most used on the body, they require more neurons in the brain.
For reference, the image below shows one half of the somatosensory cortex of the brain, and where the homunculus lays within the cortex. Notice the mapping of the sensations of the body parts, and the sizing of importance. Interestingly, the feet and legs are directed to the midline of the brain. Not so shockingly, the face and mouth sensation reception lays along the sides the brain, close to where our ears lay. It is widely known that speech also lives in that same area, so it is not surprising that sensation of the mouth and face also reside in the same area.
THE POWER OF TOUCH
Touch, Healing, and the Technology Era
Healing is one of the largest, un-utilized pieces of touch. Physiologically, touch increases serotonin and dopamine, which translates to better memory, better learning, and is an anti-depressant. The same happens with physical therapy and massage therapy. As an example, if someone has acute or chronic back pain, they often utilize physical therapy and/or massage therapy to lessen symptoms. When another person's touch is helping them relax and alleviate pain, the brain releases oxytocin, perceives the sensory input as a reward, and in turn alleviate symptoms. Even just a loved one touching the area of discomfort or pain has been shown to relieve symptoms. In today's society, we live with our faces in computers and cell phones, and human connection lives online. We rely less on physical touch to make connections with others. With this in mind...
I CHALLENGE YOU
Use your new knowledge to reconnect with others - keep in mind that it does not matter if you are the toucher or the touchee. Step away from your technology and devices to give someone close to you a hug of 20 seconds or more to lower your blood pressure. Pat someone on the back or give a handshake to activate the reward center in your brain. Massage your own hands or feet, give a massage, go for a walk, touch your pet, or my personal favorite - try yoga! It activates those receptors in your skin by stretching the skin and tissue to getting the same benefit of touch.
Although I love writing these blogs to share information with all of you, what I love the most is how much more I get to learn about topics that I love. I have to admit - I do not like being touched. But after continuous learning, I recognize that touch and sensation needs to be a greater part of our lives. So I am challenging myself AND you to embrace this, and to use touch to change your life!
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