touch
Source of image: Dreamstime

Research (Field, 2010)  suggests that the severity of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms and human touch are negatively correlated. In other words, those suffering from severe symptoms of BPD experience less physical contact with other human beings than do ‘BPD sufferers with less severe symptoms (all else being equal). This finding provides further evidence in favor of the many benefits, both mental and physical, of the experience of human touch and the deprivation of human touch can be severely detrimental to a person’s psychological and emotional welfare, as we shall see below.

First, let’s look at the benefits of human touch:

  • Reduces anxiety and stress
  • Improves immune system 
  • Lowers risk of heart disease
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Reduces heart rate
  • Increases levels of oxytocin
  • Increases levels of serotonin 
  • Increases levels of serotonin
  • Signals safety and trust
  • Soothes
  • Reduces pain
  • Activates the body’s vagus nerve which is involved with our compassion response. (Read more about the vagus nerve here).

Now let’s look at the potentially detrimental effect of being deprived of touch:

Highly Controversial Study Involving Monkeys And What We Might Infer From Such Studies:

This famous (or notorious) study was carried out by Harlow (and its controversial nature acted as a catalyst for the emergence of the animal rights movement). The study involved keeping infant monkeys in isolation chambers for up to 2 years so that they were deprived of touch. These monkeys became extremely disturbed. An earlier experiment by Harlow had already established the importance of touch to these monkeys as it was found that when given the choice between clinging to 

  1. A surrogate ‘mother’ made of wire and holding a bottle of food

or

      2. A surrogate ‘mother’ made from soft cloth (like a cuddly toy) and NOT holding a bottle of food

the monkeys preferred number 2, suggesting that they prioritized the sense of comfort derived from the soft touch of the surrogate mother made of cloth to the easy access to food.

It is reasonable to extrapolate from this finding, given how closely related humans are to monkeys in evolutionary and genetic terms, that touch is equally indispensable to human welfare.

Some Examples Of Human Studies Showing The Benefits Of Touch:

   – Research conducted by Field (of The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine) that involved  HIV and breast cancer patients found that massage strengthens our immune system by increasing levels of our natural killer cells which kill viral and bacteria cells.

   – Research conducted by the neuroscientist Edmund Ross found that touch stimulates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex which is involved in feelings of compassion and reward.

   – Research conducted by Feldman et al. (2013) involved 2 groups of premature babies There were 73 babies in each group):

GROUP ONE BABIES: Received skin-to-skin touch with their mothers

GROUP TWO BABIES: Received incubator care

Later, between the ages of 6 months and 10 years, all of the 146 individuals (i.e. the total of groups one and two) were given intermittent COGNITIVE TESTS.

It was found that, overall, individuals from GROUP ONE (skin-to-skin group) did significantly better than individuals from GROUP TWO (incubator group).

Furthermore:

At AGE 10 YEARS individuals from GROUP ONE (skin-to-skin group):

  • slept better
  • contended better with stress
  • had more advanced autonomic nervous systems
  • had better cognitive control.


THERAPEUTIC WAYS TO BENEFIT FROM TOUCH:

  • pets (e.g. stroking a dog or cat regularly)
  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy; research suggests it can ameliorate symptoms of depression and increase the effectiveness of the immunity system)
  • tai chi
  • reiki
  • weighted blankets (can provide the sensation of being held with beneficial physiological effects including calming the nervous system.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

 

REFERENCES:

 

  • Carolyn Magdalen Monroe, Effects of Therapeutic Touch on Pain Journal of Holistic Nursing American Holistic Nurses Association Volume 27 Number 2June 2009 85-92
  • Feldman et al. (2013)-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life.Published:October 07, 2013DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012
  •  Harlow, H. F.; Dodsworth, R. O.; Harlow, M. K. (June 1965). “Total social isolation in monkeys”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 54 (1): 90–97
  • Ruth Feldman PhD,; Arthur I Eidelman MD (2007) Skin-to-skin contact (Kangaroo Care) accelerates autonomic and neurobehavioural maturation in preterm infants. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.