Importance of Touch
We have all felt the effects of the pandemic’s isolation. Of reaching for a hug or handshake, only to curl our fingers inward as we remember that it’s not prudent at such a time to make physical contact with others. And yet, our race has a deep need for touch. Watching nature, it’s a basic form of communication and a way to form bonds. From a newborn making skin-to-skin contact with their mother within the first hour after birth, to adolescent development and a sense of community and support, touch is vitally important.
Dr. Harry Harlow performed his famous experiments with rhesus monkeys in the late 1950’s, exploring if infant monkeys became attached to their mothers out of survival needs, or if it was something more. He composed two conditions involving two types of surrogate “mothers” for the infant monkeys; the first was a basic framework made of wood and wire, while the second was constructed of rubber and terrycloth. In the first condition, the wire mother had a milk bottle while the cloth mother had nothing. In the second condition, the cloth mother had food while the wire mother had nothing. In both conditions, Dr. Harlow found that the infant monkeys preferred spending time with their cloth mothers, approaching the wire mother only to get food, before returning to their cloth mother.
Next, these infants were introduced to new or “scary” environments both with and without their cloth mothers. In the instances where their cloth mother was present, the infants were bolder, exploring their new environment or attacking the new scary object and returning to their cloth mothers for comfort. In the instances where the cloth mother was not present, the infants were often paralyzed with fear. Through these experiments, Dr. Harlow concluded that attachment between infant and mother develops from the infant’s biological need for “tactile comfort” which establishes emotional comfort.
During the quarantine period of the pandemic, many of us became restless with pent up energy, too much time isolated or too much time in close quarters with our quarantine families. As Dr. Harlow’s experiments have shown at least in early years of development, this can negatively affect us, opening our awareness to emotional health. Some effects found in various countries include insomnia, quick to anger, or anger directed at kids, anxiety, depression, increased suicidal tendencies, drug use and drug overdose. Interaction through touch helps to calm our nervous center, slows down our heartbeat, lowers blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone), and triggers the release of oxytocin (emotional balancing hormone).
Some methods to increase touch in your life include:
Massage Therapy- shown to ease depression, increase attentiveness especially awareness of your own body, and enhance immune function.
Spending time with your pets- Petting the soft fur mimics the benefits of human touch, including decreasing anxiety.
Mani/Pedicure (or Relief Feet)- Touch and self-care for your feet, destresses and promotes relaxation.
Weighted blankets- Although not direct human contact, it can simulate touch comfort similar to that of the terrycloth mother in Dr. Harlow’s experiments.
In massage therapy, touch is more than just the mechanical movement. As we have explored in this blog, it’s rooted in a deep primal need for assurance, comfort, and confidence. In massage therapy, touch is also the intention and energy accompanying the movement. The lack of touch, of connection and intention, often disrupts our emotional rhythm, causing dis-ease in our emotional and physical bodies. Touch helps us feel connected and facilitates healing on a physical and energetic level.
Association for Psychological Science (2018, 20 June). Harlow’s Classic Studies Revealed the Importance of Maternal Contact [online article]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html
Kamble S, Joshi A, Kamble R, et al. (October 01, 2022) Influence of COVID-19 Pandemic on Psychological Status: An Elaborate Review. Cureus 14(10): e29820. doi:10.7759/cureus.29820. Retrieved from https://www.cureus.com/articles/111985-influence-of-covid-19-pandemic-on-psychological-status-an-elaborate-review
McLeod, S. (2020). Harry Harlow, Monkey Love Experiments [online article]. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/harlow-monkey.html
McNichols, N. K. Ph.D. (2021, 3 August). The Vital Importance of Human Touch [online blog]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/everyone-top/202108/the-vital-importance-human-touch