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Why Touch is Imperative for Physical and Mental Health

December 11, 2016 3 min read

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Why Touch is Imperative for Physical and Mental Health

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word touch as "the action or an act of touching (with the hand, finger, or other part of the body); exercise of the faculty of feeling upon a material object." There is a very big clue as to the power of touch here, when you consider that the word ‘feeling’ is used. Touch itself is not considered to be an emotion, but it provides feedback to the brain, which results in the generation of emotion, so in this way physical sensation and emotions are intrinsically linked. We do not naturally try to intellectually interpret touch or analyze the sensations or emotions that arise; nevertheless the end result is emotional stimulation. The kinds of emotions we experience as a result of touch are no doubt subjective and based on previous experiences, especially of the maternal kind.

When we describe the feeling of being emotionally ‘moved’ in a positive way by something we have perceived, it is normal for us to use the word ‘touched’ to describe the feeling. The word ‘touchy’ is used to describe a person who reacts in an overly sensitive manner. There are many clues within language that we take for granted due to familiarity. If we stopped to consider the ways in which we use these words, it may well reinforce the concepts the words were originally intended to convey.

How an infant is handled from birth and how much maternal care it receives has been linked to the development of its healthy psychology in adult life. Children who do not receive this basic human need do not develop in a normal way. Another interesting thing to note is that differences have been reported between those born by Caesarian section and those naturally. Breastfeeding is also commonly thought to be a factor in both healthy development and intelligence. If in the initial five months a child is alive it does not receive enough physical stimulation, its physical and mental development can be seriously affected. In the early 1900s Johns Hopkins University examined infant mortality rates within orphanages because they were so high that it was obviously abnormal. They found that because staff members were so busy, these children were starved of touch, only receiving the most basic care. At this point mortality rates were 9 in 10, a significantly high number; this proved that lack of touch was in fact fatal at this early stage. As staffing levels were raised and infants received more physical attention the rates turned around completely, to 1 in 10.

Deficiencies arise through starvation of touch

Touch is as important as food, water and oxygen. Infants have been known to die without it, regardless of receiving other basic needs, and in experiments where adults were deprived of touch they were seen to become mentally off-balance. The skin is an organ itself – the body’s largest - and can be considered to be the surface of our brains. With no stimulation of the skin, it seems that a deficiency of sorts arises within the brain, negatively affecting our psychological state. Simply put, the messages that the brain receives from the skin supremely affect our growth as human beings.

As any massage therapist probably knows, the skin provides immunity in that it prevents bacteria from entering the organism, it regulates temperature and its sensory receptors send information about the external environment to the brain. Touch is the most powerful of the senses and our work as massage therapists is mainly based on the sensory pleasures that our clients receive. This sensory benefit is seen in all species of mammals, and they uninhibitedly and demonstrably enjoy touch. Babies cuddle up to their mothers and siblings and we can see that domesticated pets love to be stroked; dogs can’t get enough of it and cats are even more demonstrative, pressing themselves against us and purring.

Massage therapists may be interested in a book by Ashley Montagu, "Touching - The Human Significance of the Skin". It addresses the importance of touch and its role in our healthy development during the various stages of life.


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