Balance July 2019 - 26

THE POWER
OF TOUCH
( IN A DI G ITA L AG E)

Tactility is often overlooked in our cyber-centric society, but at
what cost? Balance looks at the importance of keeping in touch
WORDS REBECCA GILLAM

T

he concept of touch often
conjures sexual connotations, or
images of simpery hug-related
greeting cards (probably with an
illustrated bear on the front). In
reality, it's one of the few human necessities,
but in these days of digital and diarised
existence, it's one of many things being put on
the back-burner.
The stratospheric rise in the popularity of
virtual connections, like WhatsApp voice notes
and emojis, over face-to-face communication
gives an insight into the current human psyche.
Yet, while our lives are changing rapidly, our
brains and bodies are not. Anxiety and stress
are skyrocketing, with all kinds of suggested
causes; from social media and 24/7 email
availability, to life choices. With a multitude of
suspects, our need for touch is mostly ignored.
Nowadays it's feasible not to be touched by
anyone for days. Arguably this is something of
an English affliction. The now-questioned and
somewhat aged (though anecdotally interesting
'coffee house' study, piloted by Sidney Jourard
in the 1960s), looked at how many times pairs
of people in caf├ęs around the world made
tactile contact. In an hour, there was zero
interaction between people in London,
compared to 180 instances in San Juan, Puerto
Rico and 110 in Paris.
As humans, the importance of touch, even
from people as stereotypically contact-averse as
us Brits, can be seen not only in research but in
our language and phrases like 'reach out' and
'get in touch', meaning to reconnect. For more
primal proof, witness the hardwired need for
human connection in babies that leads them to
hold a parent's finger from birth, while a lack of
physical attention can result in early death.

26

But what's behind this psychological need?
Though how our brains process touch is a
subject of ongoing research, chartered
psychologist Dr Carie Schuster says it can be
explained by "The sensory response it
stimulates releasing chemical signals that help
people feel calm. These interactions create
oxytocin, a hormone related to involvement
in social interactions, with humans and pets,
which produce stress relief and feelings
of connectedness."
Within our romantic relationships the need
deepens, with studies showing closer couples
touch more. A team of Harvard researchers,
lead by Christopher Oveis, interviewed 69
pairs for five minutes and found those who
scored higher in frequency and length reported
greater relationship satisfaction. Though it's
anecdotal, it supports the theory that touch
communicates the message of "I'm on your
side", as well as the rush of hormones.
The effect on the quality of relationships is
also observable within teams, where research
published in the peer-reviewed scientific
journal Emotion showed good teams tended to
be "touchier" than bad ones. Schuster says:
"Though touch from a stranger can produce the
fight or flight reaction, if welcomed it can
reduce normal defence mechanisms and lead
to good outcomes, like endorphins (love
hormones), reduced cortisol (the stress
hormone) and increased oxytocin (another
love hormone)."
Moreover, it activates the vagus; this is the
tenth and longest cranial nerve, spanning from
the brain stem to part of the colon, and
connects the brain to the body. More
specifically, it also acts as the conduit for the
parasympathetic nervous system to the main

abdominal organs. Yoga teacher Viriam Kaur, a
Kundalini Yoga Meditation and relaxation
coach, who runs vagus nerve workshops, hails
its impact upon our lives. "It is our social
engagement system ultimately and the newest
part of our autonomic nervous system."
But it's not just a social or romantic context
which stimulates these reactions in our bodies,
but also through massage, physiotherapy, other
hands-on treatments and even haircuts. As
Kaur says, "massage and touch are one of
myriad ways to increase vagal tonicity." To back
this theory up, research from the Touch
Research Institute at the University of Miami's
Miller School of Medicine, found regular
massage helped reduce anxiety.
According to Scarlet Crawley, founder of
bodywork studio MASAJ, "Touch is vital to
humans, which is one of the reasons massage is
making its way into the mainstream. We're all
too busy to focus on our own bodies, and
therefore brains, and it takes its toll on our
physical and mental health."
The problem in our debilitatingly digital age
is we're swapping human-to-human contact for
device-based interaction. "When we spend too
long in the online world, we're substituting the
long-term powerful effect of the 'hug hormone'
oxytocin for the short-term 'hit' of dopamine,
the 'do it again' hormone," explains Tanya
Goodin, digital detox specialist, author of OFF
and Stop Staring At Screens, and host of new
podcast It's Complicated.
"Oxytocin is arguably the most powerful, but
it's also the one that takes the longest to build
up. Often called the 'trust' hormone, it's present
in the strong bond between mother and child,
and also builds up between partners over time
after the initial giddy 'in love' stage. It's what
makes break-ups so gut-wrenchingly painful
and, if you've ever witnessed a child separated
from its mother - even temporarily - you'll
know its strength."
Worryingly the body's reaction to social
media triggers similar hormone responses to
that of a hug. "When we get 'likes' or online
interactions from a stranger or vague
acquaintance, our brain fires off dopamine,
which interestingly is also the chemical
associated with addiction," continues Goodin.
"This feels great so we keep going back for
more. But screen interaction can't build
oxytocin, which relies on physical presence, so
we're building one at the expense of the other.
Nothing we do in the online world can replace
that deep chemical bond of trust and love and,
simply put, we need the power of touch as
much as we need food and water in order for us
to survive."
As Canadian author Margaret Atwood said:
"Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is
the first language, and the last and it always
tells the truth." So, the upshot? Get a dog, ditch
your phone and go out on a limb. B



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