In today’s world of technology and social media, often our connections are made through a screen rather than in person. This may have enabled us to connect at great distances and opened communication beyond timezones, but is the unintended consequence a loss of human physical touch, a vital connection for the health of humans?

“Connection is why we’re here it’s what gives us meaning and purpose in this life.” —  Brene Brown

Many positive psychology studies have shown people who feel a strong sense of connection have a greater sense of happiness. Our tactile system is important to our feelings of comfort and connection. In a blind study, it was shown that humans can recognize the emotion behind a touch. We can tell if a touch is delivered with compassion, joy, or anger. Without the use of touch accompanying our dialogue, we stand to lose out on this resource.

Some people instinctively touch more than others and we all respond differently to touch. How and why would we prioritize using this powerful sense to make us more attractive and successful?

The Social Functions Of Touch

Touch:

  1. provides feelings of reward
  2. reinforces reciprocity
  3. signals safety
  4. soothes

Some fantastic studies concerning touch therapies have shown that touching premature babies actually aids in weight gain by 47%. Alzheimer patients have reduced incidence of depression with the use of touch. Touch by a teacher doubles the likelihood a child will choose to speak in class. Patients receiving touch therapy reported higher survival rates in the face of complex diseases.

Josh Ackerman, a MIT psychologist, believes we understand the world through physical experiences with the primary sense being physical touch. He connects changes in peoples’ thoughts with different physical experiences. He recently published an article in Science Magazine about “embodied cognition,” a field of research that supports the concept of a mind-body connection. Ackerman’s studies attempt to link our physical sensations to our judgments and our social cognition.

Some of the outcomes have shown that kids are better at math when they use their hands while they’re thinking, actors can more easily recall their lines if they are able to move, and people are more generous after they’ve held a warm cup of coffee in their hands.

Neuroscientist Edmund Ross has found that physical touch activates the orbitfrontal cortex of the brain, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion.

Why Touch Matters

Touch is a language we instinctively know how to use. It is the first sense we develop and use to interpret incoming data. Touch increases the speed of communication—a touch soothes faster than words can form. Even fleeting contact with a stranger can have a measurable effect on both fostering and enhancing cooperation. Touch fosters a connection that sometimes leads to greater rewards.

The Rules Of Touch

There are plenty of good reasons why people are inclined to keep their hands to themselves, especially in a society as litigious as ours. Fear of our touch being seen as sexual or taken as a sign of weakness are just two examples. According to the Touch Research Institute, when you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin, you lower levels of stress hormones being released. So, how can we activate our sense of touch without offending others?

  • High fives and handshakes are acceptable at most workplaces and schools.
  • Ask before you hug.
  • A shoulder squeeze is acceptable with people you know.
  • Don’t assume it’s okay to pat a child on the head or to squeeze their cheeks—if you wouldn’t touch an adult that way, don’t touch a child that way.
  • In many sports, a slap on the butt is acceptable, but remember, not everyone plays sports. Keep this touch on the playing field.
  • Touching the arm of a lunch date is acceptable.
  • Avoid holding when you touch, this sense of being held can trigger the fight or flight response and increase anxiety in many people.

When in doubt, ask before you touch. Different cultures and countries have very different boundaries regarding touch, with warmer climates seeming to be more open to touching than cooler ones. North Americans lag way behind other cultures in their daily touch count.

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