The Power of Human Touch

“There is a primal reassurance in being touched, in knowing that someone else, someone close to you, wants to be touching you,” writes best-selling author Jim Butcher. “There is a bone-deep security that goes with the brush of a human hand, a silent, reflex-level affirmation that someone is near, that someone cares.”

“Skin hunger” is the name for a new concept in our digital and disconnected world. For eons we lived in family units and larger tribes, all of which had plentiful physical contact. Hunter-gatherers and farmers lived in close proximity and depended on each other in order to thrive.

Non-verbal communication and trust developed robustly as successful families and tribes grew in numbers. Those who could not or did not communicate and were not adaptable were culled out of the herd and didn’t survive to reproduce. Evolution favored intimacy. Touch is the key ingredient of intimacy (and the opposite of “skin hunger”).

Our society has grown away from physical intimacy, which is important for good mental and physical health. The laying on of the hands is the physical act of helping the ill and infirm. Touch is therapeutic, and for centuries was as effective as most every other therapy.

Non-verbal communication and emotions are inexorably intertwined. With more and more of our time spent at a keyboard and on the internet (as I am doing now as I draft this message), we become separated and distant. We all get removed from face to face, eye to eye, and skin to skin contact which has been so necessary for survival.

Contact is so important that one major way of punishment is to remove a person from interaction, which is essentially what a “time out” is for a toddler or solitary confinement is for a prisoner. Being isolated is uncomfortable for most social beings. Think of the many organizations we all belong to at various times of our lives—teams centered on sports; clubs focused on crafts while in K-thru-12th grade; sororities and fraternities in college; chambers and professional organizations in our working lives. All are all examples of us joining interest groups where we help each other and have physical contact with each other.

Peter Andersen is a Ph.D. trained at Florida State University. He observes:

“People who touch have better relationships. They have higher levels of intimacy. Touch often produces positive emotions. Skin hunger (lack of touch) shows negative association with general health, happiness, social support, relationship satisfaction, and attachment security. Some studies show excessive time spent in a digital world is more likely to produce loneness.”

Certain cultures are much more intimate and “touchy” than others. The English are often characterized as stiff (think of a “stiff upper lip”). Many Latin cultures endorse hugging, double or triple cheek kissing, and warm banter before and after any serious business is conducted.

Americans, according to Peter Andersen, are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We are a melting pot. This is good, but we are sometimes conflicted when it comes to how to act in social settings. We may wish to express warmth with a hug, but this may come with a lingering concern that touch or inadvertent excessive public intimacy might not be welcomed by others. In fact, in today’s hypersensitive work environment, touch may be misconstrued as an invasion of personal space.

“Proxemics” is the study of how close folks come to each other in normal interaction, whether personal or professional. Proxemics shows that being too close is as uncomfortable as being too distant and not connected. Communication among ourselves is most effective when we all are not afraid to make eye contact, smile warmly and genuinely, be appropriate with touch, and the right distance apart.

In the womb we are surrounded by touch, which is the most essential of the five basic senses for survival. Touch is the first and last sense of our lives. As we hug a newborn, the baby is comforted and fed; and as we console the dying, touch is the last sense to diminish before death. Babies, toddlers, and children are the best to lovingly cuddle, caress, hug, and play wrestle. Parents mourn the day their children are too big to sit on their laps.

Adults in the working environment should be “high fiving,” “fist bumping,” shaking hands, and touching on the arm or shoulder to help create an environment of trust and success. We don’t have to be distant. Having fun doing the right thing is mission critical for good teams doing important work. Cold, distant, and excessively formal environments are not necessary for progress.

Granted, in some adversarial situations such as courtrooms, it is still important to be professional in order to come to a solution which is good and fair for all. Obviously, the non-verbal communications are different here and the “touch” maybe limited to a handshake.

Finally, the elderly, disabled, and very ill are sometimes characterized as “untouchables,” and this is an area for more understanding and change. We can help folks by shaking hands, touching, caring, reading to them and interacting in ways that bring back pleasant memories. These folks need more, not less touch. They are not social pariahs and, in fact, if we are lucky someday, we will be the elderly ones looking for company.

Life is a cycle. Touch is an important connector in this cycle and makes all of us better off mentally and physically.

So, show someone that you care. Reach out and touch somebody, and enjoy the most fundamental of our senses.

Dr. Allen Weiss, CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System, is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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