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The Power of Touch

By Terry Chamorro
Posted: 02/27/2024
Tags: health, terry chamorro

At the core of human interaction are physical touch and the face-to-face interaction of eye   gaze. Of these, touch is thought to bring forth the most information as well as producing an efficacious reaction on the body. It is the initial sensation the newborn experiences, and it is the infant’s most fully developed sense at birth.


Touching is a frequent occurrence in one’s day-to-day encounters with family, friends and  strangers. Is that important for our well-being? Do we feel a flash of pleasure? Does it even impact our attention in the moment? Or do we experience a momentary sense of discomfort?  At a recent Village Cultural Exploration Group meeting, discussion centered on our respective thoughts about a short, award-nominated documentary we were assigned to watch. The video focused on an ex-Marine, injured and traumatized during his service in Afghanistan, who now planned to bomb an Islamic center in a city in Indiana. He believed he needed to rid his community of these Muslims, a group he deemed far outside of America’s values. Instead, in an encounter with the group, they immediately received him with a physical hug and invitation to join the Muslim followers, which, over time, he did. A tragic outcome was prevented, the turning point initiated by a hug. Members of our discussion group provided their individual perspectives on the potential power of physical touch with commentary such as: “A hug can crumble walls”; “Touch is the manifestation of humanity”; and “Touching is the display of love.”


The physiology of touch is a critical interplay of skin, nerves and brain. Science measures touch primarily through the elicitation of three neurotransmitters: the hormones cortisol, oxytocin and noradrenaline, which surge in the brain at the stimulus of touch. Oxytocin alone is sometimes labeled the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical,” and its limits have been explored extensively in research to determine the extent of its relevance in a therapeutic relationship.  Many nurses will tell you that touch, resting a hand on the patient’s forearm or shoulder during a clinical interview, is one of their most valuable tools in gaining trust with the patient. Touch is readily accepted by most people when they are sick, and it aids in lowering the stress of the moment. An exception to this is the encounter with a patient on the autism spectrum, when touching can become a distinct trigger for an outburst.


In the realm of human development, touch hasn’t always been valued as important to human development — in fact, quite to the contrary. In our broader geriatric group, many among us were infants or young children during the child development movement of the 1950s, when the concept was prevalent that the child would become more self-sufficient and develop more quickly without overindulgence, manifested by lap-sitting and cuddling. Fortunately, the subsequent appearance of psychological studies that were well-grounded in science reversed that trend. More recently, we’ve significantly diminished human contact, especially involving touch, in our fight against the Covid pandemic. We mandated physical isolation to the limits possible in our lives and continued it long after understanding that the offending virus spreads through airborne transmission — the mouth or nose, not touch. Did limiting the neurophysiological response we receive from touch have a lasting effect? Our caution continues today, although to a lesser degree. From the social perspective, we note the trend toward acceptance and promotion of what we define as our “personal space,” where closeness and touching are rejected.


Will human-to-human touch be compromised into our future? We know the relevance of touch to the therapeutic relationship and to healing. Furthermore, touch is something that we all can generously render without becoming a clinician. Consider that with just a warm hand, we all can make an impact, one person at a time.

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