The Benefits of Touch across the Human Lifespan

Michelangelo said, “To touch is to give life.” Today we’re exploring how science proves him right. We’ll explore findings from researchers like UC Berkeley professor Dacher Kelter, who has overseen experiments on how well humans can convey emotions to each other through touch alone (about half of the time, it turns out.) Beyond expression of compassion and other emotions, we’ll find that touch can improve health and activate brain centers for reward and compassion.

Primates spend 10-20% of their waking time grooming each other—that’s time spent touching family members and peers. Yet many people in the West go days on end without touching another human being. Psychologist Sidney Jourard’s 1960s research on touch around the world examined friends conversing in a café together. Jourard found that in some countries, the friends touched each other many times—in France, they touched 110 times per hour, while in Puerto Rica they touched 180 times in an hour. In the US, the friends touched each other just twice, during enthusiastic moments. And British friends didn’t touch each other at all. Just imagine—a student massage in our NW massage therapy school clinic may be the only time a person is touched for days on end.

Some research suggests that human touch is a quick way that human beings can communicate emotions. Dacher Kelter worked with his graduate student Matt Hertenstein to build a specialized lab space, where a divider separated two study participants. An opening allowed the extension of an arm through the barrier. With a one-second-long touch, one participant tried to convey an emotion to the respondent on the other side of the barrier. With mathematical chances of correcting the intended emotion at about 8%, researchers didn’t expect to see the amazing results: participants could effectively express emotion through touch about half of the time!

Clearly we are able to communicate with each other through touch alone. And research is suggesting that touch may key to our health.

When we do spend time caressing and consoling each other through touch, we see significant health improvements, including a stronger immune system. Studies show that positive touch bumps up the body’s production of IGA, a protein that assists in fighting infections.

The benefits of touch extend across the human lifespan. One study found that premie infants who received touch therapy gained 47% more weight than their counterparts who received standard medical treatment.

Kelter has suggested that touch serves important social, cognitive, and emotional functions, including:

Providing feelings of reward. The neuroscientist Edmund Roll has found that touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex, right above the eyes in the front of the brain. This is the brain’s center for compassion as well as reward in decision-making.
Encouraging reciprocity. Primate studies show that primates who groom each other are more likely to share food and other resources with each other. Touch is a mechanism for building reciprocal relationships.
Signaling safety and trust. Touch is a way that primates and humans convey security.
Soothing. Research shows that warm touch calms the cardiovascular system and activates the vagus nerve. James Gross’ studies have found that touch also causes the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

This is only a small sampling of the research showing that touch is an important component of a healthy life. Portland massage schools such as East West College prepare individuals to practice as effective massage therapists, who heal through the power of touch. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about our program.