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The Touch of Reality
By: Aaron Drogoszewski
July 22nd, 2020

 

“The Touch of Reality”

The benefits of social touch on

Reduction in violence

Trust

Immune function

Team dynamic

Learning

*And the potential ill-effects of isolation

 

Have you ever stopped to consider how important and influential human contact, or “touch” is to us as a society? To illustrate my point, I’ll gently touch on the overall theme in the paragraph below..

 

I want to touch base with you, and

I’d be touched if you took the time to read this…

Because I’d like to think I have the magic touch as it pertains to touching on a subject that might touch a nerve.

The energy of today is really touch and go….

So please make sure to stay in touch

If you feel like this blog is out of touch.

 

Have you ever noticed before how many of our common, and frequently used terms reference touch? 

Yeah….me either.

I never noticed how often we use these terms, and/or the degree to which we may have taken them, or the act of social contact for granted…until I, just like everyone else was unable to do so.

Cinderella (The 80’s hair-metal band, not the glass slipper princess) wrote a song “Don’t know what you’ve got (till it’s gone). But this isn’t about them, or that song…it’s about Phil Collins and some thinking I’ve been doing while in self-quarantine. 

One day in late April, as I was snuggling with my wife and two children on the couch, the song “Invisible Touch” by Genesis started playing….and it gave me pause. 

 

Out of all the recent unknowns  (and there have been too many to count), I realized I hadn’t considered what it’s like to truly be in “Self-Quarantine”… 

Isolated.

All by yourself. 

I started thinking about what it’s like to be limited, or completely restricted from intimate social connectivity…especially social touch? 

I dropped the thought quickly, and told myself that things will go back to normal soon anyways…but then I pondered…”what if It doesn’t?”

If we accept and adopt the new norm of keeping 6 feet apart and shuddering at the thought of making contact…could anything really go wrong? 

That’s when I got out of my head long enough to hear the music floating into my ears as Phil Collins sang the lyrics:

 

“Well I’ve been waiting, waiting here so long

But thinking, nothing, nothing could go wrong,

Ooh now I know…”

 

The scientific community has told us since late winter that one of the best things we can do to protect our health, and that of those around us, is to create plenty of space between yourself and others. This is one of the many precautions used to avoid contracting or transmitting COVID-19. 

 

  • On the flipside…the scientific community has produced research for decades demonstrating that one of the best ways to nurture and support:
  • Physiological
  •  Psychological
  • Cognitive
  •  social development
  •  Longevity
  • And overall health

…..is to be social, and engage in as much positive social touch as possible

 

So….Where do we go from here?

These are scary times.

This is a sensitive issue. 

And…rightfully so, many find this topic a little more than “touchy” 

Now….

Before we go any further, please let it be known that I am not advocating in any way, shape, or form to disregard the recommendations of the scientific and medical community

I am simply pondering where we are today, and what a tomorrow without touch might feel like.

I’m curious what the shape, intensity, and distance traveled of the ripples in the pond might look like if the current “pebble” tossed byway of social distancing standards becomes….the standard. 

 

Our current zeitgeist is composed of much more than face masks and six feet of separation:

-28% of adults live alone in the United States today (1)

Compared to:

*23% in the 1980’s

*13% in the 1960’s

-20% of US workers reports they can and will work from home as of 6/18/2020 and 54% would like to (2)

*(5.2% of workers in the US worked from home in 2017)

-The average American spends approximately 2-hours and 22 minutes per day looking at social media (3)

*That number is increasing by approximately 2 minutes per day

*Which translates to an average 58,438 hours or 6 years and 8months dedicated to “socializing” behind a screen over the course of a lifetime

-There is a looming socially-deleterious prospect of  automation in the workplace in the not-so-distant future

 

Phil may have been singing about a love interest, but I’m “singing” about my concern for the vision of our ability, and comfort to engage in positive social touch becoming….invisible.

The benefits of social touch/contact

“To touch is to give life”

Michelangelo

Mother Nature has done a fascinating job in making many of the items needed for survival, either as individuals, or a species feel pretty darn good. 

There’s a reason why a pat on the shoulder

hug

a gentle touch on the arm

fingers running through your hair 

and many other examples…

(when in the appropriate and desired context) do just that.

In the proper circumstance and setting…..they feel good. 

Social touch is considered integral in human health and development.

Ranging from:

cognitive function/development

Immune function

emotional regulation

communication

physiological development

healthy development of social cues/rewards

and more….

The physiological responses via the interpretation of social touch; The hormones, and neurotransmitters produced, and more make social contact vital for not only our happiness but for our health….and it is binary.

Just as the presence and abundance of appropriate and positive social touch fuel our health and happiness….it’s absence can have deleterious effects on the development, or healthy function of our physiological, psychological, cognitive/intellectual, and social faculties. 

 

Before we venture into the deleterious effects of isolation, let’s explore some benefits of positive social touch worthy of a little more attention…especially today.

 

1. Decreased Violence

 “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence”, is a research paper comparing and contrasting; 

A variety of cultures enriched with social touch commonly practiced and supported by the community 

Vs. 

Other Cultures demonstrating less tolerance for social touch, and/or completely intolerant of its practice 

 

The author, James W. Prescott, a developmental psychologist, and former health science administrator at the National Institute of Child and Human Development, dedicated the majority of his research to the origins of violence.

Prescott concludes via the data collected that societies that were more open to touch, experience, and suffer much less violence than those intolerant to it. (4)

 

In the spirit of being as holistic, and universal as possible, let’s open our eyes and minds to look at the implications of touch outside the scope of the Homosapien experience

 

Some non-human primates dedicate almost 20% of their wakeful hours to grooming one another…

(and they aren’t spending that time just to get bugs out of their hair, or hook each other up when they’ve got “bed-head”)

 

Chimpanzees groom predominantly to (5)

-“reassure” each other

-Build alliances

-Help each other respond to threats

-relax tensions

– minimize aggression.

 

Even fish have been shown to have a positive response in the reduction of aggressive and violent behavior through touch.

 A 2019 study examined the behavior of Nile Tilapia, a territorial and commonly aggressive species, and found that tactile stimulation displayed a marked reduction in aggressive behaviors. (6)

 

2. Greater trust between individuals

(Prior to COVID) A handshake would tell you a lot about a person…or at least it would most likely influence the dynamic of the exchange.

Ala Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, The Beckman Institute discovered that research in neuroscience is confirming:

“Strangers do form a better impression of those who offer their hand in greeting” (7)

A paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that:

“A handshake preceding social interaction enhanced the positive impact of approach and diminished the negative impact of avoidance behavior..”

But, what does touch have to do with trust? Research would indicate quite a bit, actually. 

Positive social touch is linked to the upregulation of Oxytocin or the “love hormone”,  as well as; (8)

-Serotonin

– and Dopamine  (9)

-while simultaneously decreasing levels of Cortisol.

Oxytocin, although often associated with breastfeeding, is produced by males and females. 

While it does play slightly different roles between the two, many researchers believe the association with breastfeeding, and/or it’s role in positive feedback loops make it heavily involved in the development and maintenance of trust for both. (10)

Oxytocin’s role in bonding makes it believed to also help generate feelings of compassion during interactions.

Unfortunately, many people these days might be finding themselves “thumbing their noses” at the thought of shaking hands.

To reinforce the relationship between hormones associated with touch, and their implied impact on trust….here’s another example to help you “sniff out” the connection:

Studies utilizing Intranasal Oxytocin (a mist sprayed in the nose) have been shown to increase some positive emotional attributes in men such as trust (11)

While this blog isn’t intended exclusively to school you handshakes and Oxytocin…

It is worth looking at an example of how touch influenced those in a classroom setting.

 

French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen studied classrooms of children, and their willingness to participate. 

The focus of the study was analyzing any potential differences between children who were given a “friendly pat”, versus those who were only spoken to without physical contact.

Gueguen observed that the students given a “friendly pat” by teachers were 3x’s as likely to speak up in class. (12)

If you still aren’t convinced and find yourself shaking your head saying “nope”….a couple more examples to consider;

-When asked for a favor:

people are significantly more likely to say “yes” when an acceptable positive touch is received during the interaction

and even more likely when touched twice. (13,14)

-Researchers Gallance and Spence discovered that people who are gently touched on the hand or shoulder by a waitress tend to give larger tips

 

3. Improved Immune Function

Under current conditions, this section might understandably be the hardest pill to swallow. 

Again, I am not advocating in the slightest to disregard current information provided by the medical and scientific communities. 

This is simply a means to explore information, and potentially help strategize how to utilize these concepts

IF…

When…

and with whom you feel comfortable. 

A study observing women undergoing treatment for breast cancer compared findings between; (15)

Participants receiving massage therapy 

Participants receiving Progressive Muscle Relaxation therapy (PMR) *involves no physical contact 

Daily measurements were taken to record levels of:

Dopamine

Lymphocytes

Natural Killer Cells (NK Cells)

Self-reported: anger, depression, vigor

While at the end of day #1 both groups showed increased levels of Dopamine, Lymphocytes, NK Cells, and a reduction in anger, depression with increased vigor…

Only the massage therapy group reported a reduction in depression, anger, and having more vigor by the end of the study

Only the massage group displayed daily increases in Dopamine, Lymphocytes, and NK Cells until the final day of the study

*NK Cells are viewed as a major component to the “front line” of the innate immune system and are involved with the mitigation of tumorous, and virally-infected cells. (16)

Many other studies observing the positive impact of touch have been conducted in hospitals for a wide range of patients with varying pathologies and ailments

Additional studies have found that patients in hospitals receiving massage therapy as part of their treatment for a wide variety of ailments ranging from burns to eating disorders demonstrated (17,18):

-A reduction in stress hormones 

-A reduction in anxiety 

-A decrease in clinical symptoms 

-HIV positive men receiving chair massage in hospitals as part of their comprehensive treatment protocol displayed a significant increase in immune cell production. (19)

-Doctors who utilize positive social touch not only typically receive much better reviews, but often see better outcomes in the healthcare of their patients. Presumably, because studies have shown that patients receiving positive social touch from their doctors typically demonstrate a reduction in blood pressure and stress levels (20)

-Premature babies gain an average of 47% more weight with massage therapy compared to babies receiving standard medical care. (21)

The goal of observing the proposed benefit to the immune system through touch is not limited to examples in doctor’s offices and hospitals with people who are afflicted with an existing pathology, or condition. When looking at the examples below, it makes me reflect on the dichotomy between “health care” and “sick care”.

-Studies on intimacy and touch have demonstrated a significant reduction in salivary cortisol levels, which, when chronically elevated can impair immune function, and yield negative effects on cognitive function, thyroid function, and blood sugar imbalances (22)

-Research has shown that women who receive more hugs from their partners typically have higher Oxytocin levels, lower blood pressure and average heart rate (23)

 

Stronger Team dynamics

What symbolizes team spirit and a tight bond more than a high-five? 

(In some cases on the court, or field, it might be a pat on the rear end.)

Positive non-sexual, intimate contact has been shown in multiple examples to be a major contributing factor in the dynamic, and often the positive outcomes of the groups utilizing it. 

In 2010 researchers Kraus, Huang, and Keltner conducted a study of 30 NBA teams focusing on: (24) 

the frequency of social touch amongst players

and

 what point in the season touch was present or absent. 

After analyzing the data, researchers were able to accurately predict future success rates of teams throughout the seasons based on how frequently they touched per game, and how early in the season this demonstration of physical affection was present.

-The teams utilizing social touch more often, and earlier in the season yielded the best game-winning outcomes.

In their own words, from the abstract of the paper:

“Consistent with hypotheses, early season touch predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season. Additional analyses confirmed that touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Moreover, coded cooperative behaviors between teammates explained the association between touch and team performance.”

– The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” 

is a game utilized to explore the way two individuals respond between the decision of pursuing their own self-interest, or cooperation with their counterpart. 

It is a well-known approach in the world of social science to study what governs the balance between cooperation and competition in business and life. 

Studies have shown that while playing this game:

-Participants who were touched were more likely to cooperate. (25)

*Interestingly, the touch given was “accidental” by the experiment staff, and not between those in an existing  social relationship

An experiment aimed to measure brain activity in response to a painful blast of white noise

placed participants in an fMRI machine with 2 different scenarios.

One group was kept in isolation in the fMRI,

 while the other group was accompanied by a close partner who held their hand or gently stroked their arm.

-Participants who were in isolation demonstrated a significant response in regions of the brain associated with threat and stress, while

The participants who’s hand was held, or arm stroked by a partner showed no activation in the same areas (26)

 

Improved learning 

The French study demonstrating the increased willingness of student participation is a good start for this exploration….but motivation, retention, and learning don’t always occupy the same Venn diagram in a complete overlap.

While some studies indicate that Oxytocin may actually be detrimental to non-emotional memory, while simultaneously being crucial for modulating learning from social interactions (27)

 Others are in support of its non-emotional role…

The prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus are both densely packed with Oxytocin receptors.

-These areas of the brain are considered crucial for higher cognitive function, and the volume of receptor sites leads some researchers to believe Oxytocin plays a strong role in learning and cognitive processes. (28)

-Mice who’s Oxytocin receptors were blocked displayed significant deficits in learning and memory, both social and non-social. (29)

-Quite similar to Oxytocin, dopamine released via positive social touch is becoming associated with learning, and retention through its role in the pleasure/reward center and the associated positive/negative feedback loops (30)

 

Visible symptoms of the “invisible touch”

There are so many valuable, and irreplaceable benefits of social touch. We’ve only scratched the surface with 5 categories, a handful of glance-over stories, and a bunch of bullet-points. 

As I previously mentioned, the positive systemic responses to social touch are binary, and unfortunately, we need to lend some attention to the implications on our overall wellbeing when it is removed from our lives.

Arguably the most infamous example of the adverse developmental and physical effects of isolation, or the absence of social touch, would be those presented in the Romanian Orphan Study. (31)

Researchers Nathan Fox, Charles Nelson and Charles Zeanah studied the children in orphanages after the 1989 overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Hundreds of thousands of children were being raised in impoverished orphanages, with the vast majority never receiving any intimate social exchanges or social touch.

-The children suffering from neglect suffered from delays in cognitive function, motor development, language, impaired socio-emotional behaviors, and psychiatric disorders

-The same children suffering from neglect displayed undesirable changes in the electrical activity of their brains

-Even those who were later adopted into loving families in the UK were shown to have smaller than average brains in adulthood

  • The absence of social touch, especially in young children (but not limited to), has been connected to;
  • Impaired physical development 
  • Impaired brain development 
  • Impaired emotional development 
  • Increased acts of aggression, depression, and self-injury

As demonstrated above, the benefits of social touch are not reserved exclusively to homo-sapiens…nor are the deleterious effects of its absence.

 From 1957-1963, Harry Harlow performed his now infamous experiment with infant Rhesus monkeys.

Harlow was intrigued by an earlier study comparing the social/emotional response of young monkeys kept either in complete isolation, and another group kept in partial isolation.

As assumed, the monkeys in complete isolation suffered terribly. What is worth noting, is the negative response from the monkeys kept in semi-isolated conditions. (32)

  • The monkeys that were kept in isolation demonstrated: 
  • Disturbed behavior
  • The “1000 yard stare”/staring blankly
  • Repetitive circling in their cages
  • Self-mutilation 
  • The monkeys that were not in complete isolation, yet raised without their mothers showed:
  • Reclusive tendencies 
  • Social deficits 
  • Clinging to their diapers (hypothesized due to their “soft touch”)

Harlow used the observations from previous social isolation experiments and took it a step further.

 He wanted to decipher which urge in infant primates is stronger

-the urge to feed

-or the urge to bond/socialize.

Baby Rhesus monkeys were placed in one of two conditions with different “surrogate mothers”:

-One made of hard wire with a bottle/the other made of soft cloth without a bottle/food 

-A cloth “mother” with food/a wire “mother” without 

I believe Harlow’s findings speak for themselves:

-In both conditions, the baby monkeys spent considerably more time with the soft, cloth “mothers”

-When the wire “mother” had the food, baby monkeys would leave the cloth “mother” only long enough to eat, then hurry back to the soft version as quickly as possible. 

He also discovered that when the infant monkeys had no real surrogate mother, they often adopted an inanimate object in their place. He witnessed when a new, potentially confusing, or even exciting environment was offered to the baby monkeys;

Monkeys with a surrogate (inanimate or not) would explore, then quickly return to the surrogate if startled. 

-Monkeys with no surrogate were “paralyzed with fear” and completely unwilling to explore at all.

When a toy, making an abrupt, loud noise was introduced;

-Those with the surrogates would explore, assess and eventually attack the toy

-Monkeys without a surrogate presented as too scared to even explore, and resorted to hiding in a corner

Not only do I believe the findings from both studies continue to illustrate the universal need for social contact, it is worth pointing out that Harlow’s experiments were considered so “cruel”, that many believe them to be the motivating force behind the US animal liberation movement. 

Human beings have inflicted cruelty on other animals for centuries. Based on the public’s response to Harlow’s experiments, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they may have considered what those monkeys experienced as worse than death itself. This “straw that broke the camels back” (pun intended) after normalizing the death of animals for centuries was…..forcing them to be alone. 

 

The science of feeling 

Unless you were born with a pathology muting one of your senses, there is no such thing as a physical feeling or tactile response without an associated emotional response. Period. 

Now…this does not mean the emotional response flirts on either extreme end of the spectrum at all times. I’m not implying that accidentally brushing your leg on a garbage can will result in you falling in love with it, or throwing it into traffic.

However…the process of analyzing and interpreting what contact means will always carry a certain degree of emotion within the vast spectrum of our potential emotional response as (our system) decodes it. 

An example of this would be why most people cannot tickle themselves. 

As human beings, we are hardwired to be sensitive to feelings and stimulus from external sources, while discounting internal, or self-perpetuated stimulus…(that’s why most people can’t tickle themselves…when the sensory stimulus hits the cerebellum, it sends an inhibitory signal to our somatosensory cortex, which suppresses the tactile sensation.)

Here’s how that works…

  • Just within the skin, we have sensory receptors that detect;
  • Heat
  • Cold
  • Pain
  • Itches
  • Sexual sensations
  • Vibration 
  • Pressure
  • And fine tactile form

Independent of which of these receptors is tasked with the job of deciphering the stimulus, once received, the signal is sent to the spinal cord, and then to the brain where it becomes interpreted by 2 systems, often simultaneously.

  • The Somatosensory Cortex: Fact-based/discriminative 
  • Where on the body am I being touched?
  • In what fashion?
  • How intensely?
  • The Posterior Insula: Emotional decoding 
  • Tone of response 
  • Association 
  • Intensity coding 
  • Recognition 

There is so much to be gained from real social contact… positive/intimate/non-sexual social touch and we stand the chance of letting it slip through our fingers one day, one post, one opportunity at a time. 

AndAssuming you are reading this while living in the continental United States, the chips have been stacked against you for almost 60 years. 

In the 1960’s psychologist, Sidney Jourard conducted an experiment to decipher how engrained social touch was in different countries, and cultures. His data demonstrated that in the course of a one-hour lunch (and keep in mind this is WAAAAY prior to social media), that the number of intimate, non-sexual touches between 2 people in varying countries looked like this:

  • England= 0
  • United States= 2 (in bursts of high enthusiasm) 
  • France= 110
  • Puerto Rico= 188

 

Putting your finger on the problem 

As stated in the opening, this blog was not intended to do anything other than provide information and an exploration of possibility. Independent of your relationship status, the benefits of social touch can still be accessed in a variety of places. 

You should always be vigilant in weighing the pros and cons in order to make decisions that keep you as safe as possible. 

If you look back at some of the examples above, you don’t need to sit for an hour + on the couch snuggling with more than one person to reap the benefits (although it is pretty nice).

Some approaches can be in alignment with current precautionary measures. 

Mask up/glove up and find someone within your social circle, then pull the old AT&T approach…

“Reach out and touch someone”

Many of the sensory receptors which, when triggered deliver the desired hormonal and neurotransmitter response….are still receptive when you’re wearing gloves, a mask, or even a Hazmat suit. 

There’s no need to throw caution to the wind.

Find a way to give and receive consensual positive touch

With someone who you like an trust

If/when you feel safe enough to do so

And as often as is reasonable for your physical and social health.

Use your head first, then your heart. 

And don’t forget that receiving social touch and its benefits is not reserved for your pool of friends, family, and loved ones.

As long as you feel safe, and you have a positive interpretation of the exchange, a visit to…

The hair salon/barber 

Massage Therapist 

Manicure/pedicure facilities

Can help you receive the stimulus, we as human beings were designed to receive. 

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