"Researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: Physical contact. Momentary touches, they say--whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm--can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words."
"It is the first language we learn, our richest means of emotional expression throughout life."
-Mind: Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much, by Benedict Carey, New York Times, February 23, 2010-
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A few weeks ago one of the research psychologists where I work told me that everyone in her department is convinced about the power of massage. And not for relieving muscle aches. She said massage produces so many positive hormones--like oxytocin--and lowers negative ones--like cortisol, that she considers it preventive medicine, not a luxury.
She has a monthly standing appointment for herself--having seen the tremendous benefits of massage on patients with chronic pain and heart failure.
I've been sharing her story with all my friends--and after reading Benedict Carey's story on the benefits of touch in yesterday's New York Times--I'm sharing both, with you. Read Carey's short piece, and I guarantee you won't think about a hand on the shoulder in the same way ever again.
The Research on Touch
- Students who receive a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher are nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class than those who were not touched.
- A sympathetic touch from doctors leaves patients with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long compared to those who were not touched.
- A massage from a loved one can ease pain, soothe depression, and strengthen a relationship.
- The best basketball teams tend to touch more than the worst teams. The "touchiest" teams are currently the best: the Boston Celtics and the LA Lakers. And the "touchiest" player in the NBA is Kevin Garnett of the Celtics. "Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys," according to Dr. Dacher Keltner, whose paper on touch in the NBA will be published in May 2010. And in case you're wondering--it's not that the best teams touch more because they are winning--the researchers controlled for this in their study. But they're aren't ready yet to conclude that touch improves performance.
- Touch releases oxytocin, the hormone that creates a sense of trust--and it reduces cortisol, the hormone of stress. Exactly what the research psychologist told me a few weeks ago!
- Couples who touch more have more satisfying relationships. Take note! But, it's not clear yet if there's a causal effect.
The Science Behind Why We Touch--Why We're Wired For Touch
- Touch reduces stress--oxytocin is released, we relax, we feel good, we feel bonded.
- When stress is reduced, the brain is better able to think & problem-solve.
- When we receive a supportive touch, we unconsciously think, "OK, I can share the load." Who knew?
- According to psychologist James A. Coan of the University of Virginia, "We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem-solving across brains. We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we're getting when we receive support through touch."
- Check out the latest research at the January 2010 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, "Gimme Five!" Tactile Communication and its Prosocial Consequences"
Now go out there today and hand out some supportive touches, high-fives, and hugs. You just may unwittingly find some volunteers to help you solve your problems!