The Power Of Touch

It's vital for our health, wellness and happiness, say the world's leading neuroscientists.

Anne Mullens Updated: Sep 26, 2018 18:12:18 IST
The Power Of Touch

Every two or three months, Thyago Ohana goes out on the busy streets of Vienna, Austria, with a big smile and a sign saying "Free Hugs". The handsome 32-year-old Brazilian, who works in international trade at the Indian Embassy in Vienna, chooses a popular locale, like the historic shopping street Kaerntner Strasse. There he opens his arms to anyone who wants a hearty embrace.

He does it because once, back in 2012, when he was feeling very stressed and anxious during a visit to Paris, a stranger gave him a free hug. He's never forgotten how it filled him with unexpected calm and joy. For those who take up his offer, getting a hug makes them laugh and smile. But sometimes it does more, as when an elderly woman in a tour group stopped and watched him. The group moved on, but she asked, "Can I have a hug?"

"Of course you can!" said Thyago who wrapped his arms round her.

When they broke their embrace, she kept holding on to his shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Thank you," she said. "I can't remember the last time I was hugged this way."

It's a memory that still makes him emotional. "It was a really powerful moment of human connection. It's why I keep doing it."

"While giving out free hugs isn't common in India, given our cultural context, holding hands is a norm within men (in other countries they'd be seen as a couple), while women squeeze in to accommodate others on crowded public transport," says Aparna Balasundaram, a Gurugram-based psychotherapist. Our society, she adds, is pretty close-knit and people are not as conscious about personal space, in fact, "activities like breastfeeding in public isn't a big deal in smaller towns".  

Of our five senses, our sense of touch is the one we are most apt to take for granted and yet the one we can least do without. "The problem is that we still aren't aware of the extent to which touch can alter behaviour patterns. A touch is very powerful as it can help show empathy and signify an inappropriate interaction," adds Balasundaram. "In my own practice, with children and women, I reach out for their arm, which gives them assurance, appreciation, comfort and the satisfaction that someone is listening to them," she adds.

"A child can be born blind or deaf and they will grow up just fine, with no cognitive impairments," says US-based neuroscientist David J. Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. "Yet if an infant is deprived of loving social touch for the first two years of life, then all sorts of disasters unfold." Balasundaram agrees: "Infants are dependent on adults for survival-so when they are robbed of that essential parental care they become less trusting, and develop loneliness and low self-esteem."

Citing the terrible experience of young children who were deprived of loving touch in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s, Linden describes how not only did they have psychological and intellectual difficulties, their immune systems did not develop properly nor did their digestive systems.

That's one reason why when babies are born, the naked infant is placed on his or her mother's bare skin. The 'skin-to-skin' contact creates a bond between the two. In fact, it works for fathers too, and it's recommended for them to cradle their newborn on their bare chest, adds Balasundaram. Research now encourages the regular stroking and holding of premature infants, through special portholes in incubators. It's also a reason why classes in infant massage techniques have passionate supporters worldwide.

Elsie Peña Tretvik, of Molde, Norway, sought out such a course because she wanted to comfort and bond with her colicky infant daughter, Maya. It changed Elsie's life. "Not only did I learn how to help Maya relax and relieve her colic, I learnt how to read her emotional cues and build my confidence as a mother." Having recently given birth to her second child, she will teach Maya, now two, how to help and do some gentle strokes.

It's only in recent years that science has begun to understand the highly complex system of nerves, sensors and receptors that link our skin and brain to our environment and people. Says Linden: "There is still so much we don't know about various touch sensations." But, we do know, "there are separate sensors for texture, vibration, pressure and itch", he says.One of the leading touch researchers in the world is Dr Håkan Olausson, professor of clinical neuroscience at Linköping University in Sweden. He was part of a team that found special touch fibres, called C-tactile afferent fibres, which are responsible for registering and transmitting the emotional meaning of gentle, slow strokes and caresses. These nerves respond optimally when touched at around 32 degrees Celcius--the temperature of a human hand. "They are particularly sensitive to caresses by other people, but also respond to many other types of touch, such as pressing on the skin." says Olausson. The style and pressure of a touch convey and communicate different emotions. For instance, a parent can lightly pat their kid on the back when they do well to express appreciation or tap them with a little force on their shoulder as a sign of warning, points out Balasundaram. In the same way, a touch with a cold hand may startle a person, while a touch with a warm hand is comforting.

When the CT fibres don't work properly, it may undermine making emotional connections to others. Research led by neuroscientist Francis McGlone, at Liverpool John Moores University in England, has found that children on the autism spectrum may have a difference in the functioning of their CT fibres that causes them to feel another person's soft touch as unpleasant.

Pallavi Shankar, Noida-based mother of six-year-old Aariv who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), uses a pressure touch brush when her son is agitated and restless. "I massage his hands, feet, back and neck with the brush using a technique that his occupational therapist has taught me. This reduces hyperactivity, improves his concentration and helps him learn skills faster," she says. She also gives him a body oil massage before bedtime. "The power of a regular massage is unbelievable," she says. Experts also believe children respond better to a mother than a professional. As we age, our sense of touch gets less sensitive, but Olausson and another team of researchers found that the pleasantness of touch remains and is enhanced with age. Patients with Alzheimer's undergo touch therapy, which helps them relax for some time. According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Nursing Science, therapeutic touch helps promote relaxation and alleviates the symptoms of agitation among patients with dementia and improves daily behaviour and cognitive function. Alas, as Thyago Ohana knows well, the elderly among us, while appreciating touch more, may be the most touch-deprived. Linden notes the research is clear about the benefits of massage and other forms of social touch for the elderly, but it hasn't been translated widely into care homes and other senior-oriented health services.

Dr Manuel Arroyo-Morales is a professor of physiotherapy at the University of Granada in Spain, where researchers study "the effect of hands on the human body". He and his team are particularly interested in the impact of massage therapies on cancer patients, finding that it partially reduces pain and fatigue, strengthens the immune system and reduces anxiety. They have found that some of the outcomes depend on the attitude of the patient towards touch and the relationship between therapist and patient. It is the specific type of massage and the "consensual touching relationship" that provide the key benefits, says Arroyo-Morales.

Joannie McCutcheon, 65, knows that first hand. In 2005, she was living in Amsterdam, working in a multi-national company as an IT specialist, when she was diagnosed with two brain tumours. One was a benign meningioma and the other a more aggressive oligodendroglioma. She named them Melanie and Ollie. "They are part of me; I needed to accept them."

Joannie had surgery to remove part of Ollie (the other part was inoperable), which is typically fatal within a few years. Separated from her husband, with grown children, in 2007 she moved back home to Scotland and in 2015 became a volunteer with the Iris Cancer Partnership, a charity that provides free massages to cancer patients from specially trained therapists. Joannie applies her IT skills on the board of Iris, and as a patient receives a massage every three weeks from her own personal massage therapist and now friend, Angela Secretan.

"I can go in feeling exhausted and headachy. She'll massage my head or my back, and she does reflexology on my feet. She seems to know instinctively what I need and together we decide what's best at that moment. It's always just gorgeous and I come out feeling everything is okay again."

Joannie feels her regular massages, as well as her adopting the attitude that her tumours were a gift that brought new relationships into her life, have kept her alive after others with the same diagnosis have died.

As well as sustaining life, the emotional connection of touch therapy can also have a profound and moving effect at life's end. Simon Robey knows that well. He's the coordinator of complementary therapies and the interim head of supportive care for St. Joseph's Hospice, London. As part of its care the hospice provides, all free of charge, a wide range of touch therapies not only to their dying patients, but to their loved ones and families, who are all under an inordinate amount of stress.

Simon Robey describes the experience of a young woman, in her early 30s, who was hours away from death. The family was supportive, staying by her bedside day and night, but the therapist offered additional support by massaging the dying woman's hands, legs, feet. "She was drifting in and out of consciousness ... but we all noticed she became remarkably more relaxed; responded to those sensory touches. For the family, there was something quite reassuring that it helped make her final hours more comfortable."

So how do we get more loving touch, while we are hale and hearty, into our day-to-day lives? For some, the answer is 'cuddle parties'--non-sexual three-plus-hour social events in which participants do just that--cuddle.

The Irish Cuddle Salon is held in Dublin on the third Sunday of every month. Wendy Stephens, 33, heard about it from a friend. As a single woman living near Dublin, she was nervous and thought it might be uncomfortable. But she found it a "beautiful, grounding experience" and hasn't missed a month ever since. It improves her sleep, appetite, keeps away any feeling of loneliness and is more comfortable within herself.

Neuroscientist David J. Linden says however you do it, working within cultural ideas and rules, "maximizing touch in your life is a good thing"--whether it is a therapeutic massage, holding hands, petting a dog, going to the hairdresser, hugging our kids, our partners or even a stranger.

--With inputs by Ayushi Thapliyal

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