The Science of Touch: A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image Source: Design Your Way

When I was a new Mum, I was warned not to carry my baby too much or he would get spoiled. “Try not to pick him up immediately when he cries or he will expect to be picked up whenever he makes a sound,” they said. In my ignorance, I heeded that advice – initially – until I learned that you can’t spoil babies because their rational brains are too undeveloped for them to have the clarity of thought to manipulate their parents.

When babies are born, much of the rational brain is undeveloped and they are ruled largely by their reptilian and mammalian brains in the first few years of life. Given the very limited repertoire of actions a babies has at birth, crying is a baby’s only means of saying, “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m overstimulated”. When babies cry, they are not trying to exercise their lungs or control their parents. They cry because they are communicating a need whether emotional or physical. For a baby, an emotional need is no less important than a physical need, and when that emotional need is unfulfilled, the pain the baby feels can be as strong as a physical hurt.

Touch is as Essential as Sunlight

Contrary to the early parenting advice I received, picking up babies and holding them a lot is not really bad for them at all – in fact, it is important because babies need touch. It is vital for their survival.

At the end of World War II, the babies raised in the arms of village women, surrounded by children, goats and dogs, who were fed goat’s milk and eventually from the communal stockpot, were thriving better than the babies who were sent to pristine field hospitals where they slept in stainless steel cots, lived in hygienic wards and received 24-hour feeds of special infant milk formula.

The reason for this is because one of the basic needs a baby requires is love – which, when you break it down, is really just the physical and emotional connection to another person.

See also: Children need touching and attention – Harvard University

Image Source: Inspired

The science of touch supports this. Even as babies grow into children, they will continue to need that connection in order to grow, learn and stay healthy.

Young children, especially, emotionally recharge themselves by connecting with their parents through touch. You may notice this when your toddler climbs onto your lap only to bounce off again seconds later to run off an play.

The biggest compliment a child can give a parent is to frequently run back to touch them briefly.  Such actions are known as “emotional refueling” – a child’s need to reconnect with Mum so they can continue with their independent activities. – The Science of Parenting

Touch remains important whether you are dealing with adults or children – something to remember as our children grow older… even our teenagers who get embarrassed by our public displays of affection will still enjoy a hug in private.

When I was a student, I had to assist in a surgical procedure. The patient needed a biopsy of his jaw joint and the surgeon had requested the anaesthetist to insert the tube through the patient’s nose. Inserting the tube through the nose is much more uncomfortable than if it goes through the mouth and I remember watching as the patient writhed on the operating table. Many times, I wanted to take his hand to offer support but I was scared that he would discard my hand in disdain. When I finally worked up the courage to take his hand, he surprised me by gripping my hand back and I realised I was silly not to have offered my hand sooner.

Image Source: Tohoku J Exp Med 2011

Touch Therapy

Proper uses of touch can also play a role in the healing practice of medicine:

  • studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
  • massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression.
  • getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Proper uses of touch can also make a difference in effective education:

  • when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.
  • when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.
  • touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children – some research suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.

Touch Increases Compliance, Helping Behaviour and Performance

There are numerous studies demonstrating the power of touch. Something as simple as a light touch on the arm can increase compliance and helping behaviour:

  • it can encourage people to return a lost item
  • it can encourage people to leave a bigger tip
  • it makes people more likely to help out
  • it encourages people to be more compliant
  • it can increase your chances of selling your car
  • it can increase your chances of getting a date

Touch can even increase performance:

A touch can be so subtle and fleeting, but its effect transcends – we may not even remember the touch, but we will remember the way we felt.


Appropriate Touches

As always, with a topic as sensitive as this, some caution and disclaimers are necessary. While touch can be extremely beneficial, it must also remain in the realm of propriety. What’s appropriate or inappropriate depends on many factors:

  • your relationship with the individual
  • cultural considerations
  • quality of the touch – intensity, duration and circumstances
  • accompanying signals – e.g. eye to eye contact

For a general guideline of what is appropriate, San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functionsmakes the following recommendation:

Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it’s always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate. The back is very low in nerve endings, so that’s OK too. – Psychology Today

Related:

Parenting: Concerning Addiction and Dealing with it

When we hear the word addiction, we immediately think of drug addiction, but this post is not just about drugs. It’s about everything that we can possibly get addicted to, including our digital devices. If we accept Steven Kotler’s premise that we are all addicts to a degree, then we need to pay attention to this and figure out how we can beat this problem that is inherent in all of us.

Preventing Addiction

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Steven Kotler wrote an extremely insightful article on Forbes about the nature of addiction and why we need to learn how to manage it, even if we think we don’t have a problem with it.

We’re all addicts to some degree because that is how our brains function – through a positive reinforcement reward system that helps us learn. By virtue of this fact, that makes us all prone to addiction. Life experiences and personality may alter our risk levels for addiction but they do not eliminate it.

There are no non-addicts in the world for the simple reason that the brain functions by addiction.

There is a cycle of neurobiology beneath habit acquisition (cue, routine, reward) and the final stop on that cycle—the reward—comes from the release of dopamine, the brain’s principle reward drug. This reinforcement locks habits into place. This cycle is how we learn.

But dopamine is the same neurochemical that makes amphetamines, morphine, nicotine, cocaine, shopping, porn, sex, gambling, eating, internet use, video games, falling in love and a host of other “addictions” addictive.

Even if we consider ourselves low risk to the common addictions of drugs, gambling and sex, there is an even more prominent addiction that faces us all – digital addiction. Unlike other addictions that we can choose to avoid, digital media is something we must face everyday in order to live in this world. Perhaps the most significant point that Kotler raises in his article is this: we bring children into a hyper-connected digital world but we’ve given very little thought about how to help them navigate this world. It is akin to throwing them into the deep end without any armbands or swimming lessons.

We are totally hooked on communication technology and have very little ability to deal with this addiction. The link between our desire for instant gratification and the Internet’s ability to deliver is pretty unbeatable. We can take “screen vacations” from time to time, but basic biology says we’re never going to be able to triumph over this “addiction.” It’s too fundamental and too omnipresent.

If we were honest about all these things, we could start teaching ourselves and our children how to manage these issues from the get-go. Addiction is a fact of life – it’s actually just normal brain function. In the 21st century, addiction management is a fundamental survival skill. – Forbes

If we accept that we’re all addicts to some degree, then our goal should be to learn how to manage this addiction and keep it under control so it doesn’t ruin our lives. Beyond that, we also need to start teaching our children the skills to manage their addictions and we need to begin as early as possible. This involves teaching them grit, emotional control and delayed gratification which brings us back to Angela Duckworth’s Grit and Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test.

Recovering from Addiction

So what if we’re too late? What if we have children already in the maelstrom of addiction? What can we do?

Johann Hari’s TedTalk on Addiction is an extremely enlightening talk that I think all parents should watch. It is a compelling message that goes beyond addiction. It highlights the awesome power of connection – I mean real human connection, not the artificial ties we think we have through social media – that brings us back again to the message that love really does conquers all.

Don’t have time to watch it? Here are the main take home points:

  • What if addiction isn’t chemical in nature but environmental? Think of all the patients who use morphine for pain management but do not get addicted.
  • Rat experiment 1: Put a rat in a cage and give it two water bottles – one with plain water and the other laced with heroin or cocaine. In this scenario, the rat will almost always prefer the drug water and almost always kill itself quite quickly.
  • Professor Alexander pointed out a flaw in experiment 1 – the rat is in an empty cage with nothing to do except use the drugs.
  • Rat experiment 2: Put a rat in a cage with lots of things to do – lots of cheese, lots of colored balls, lots of tunnels, and other rat friends. The same two water bottles – normal water and drugged water – are also included. In this scenario, the rats don’t like the drug water. They almost never use it and if they do, they never use it compulsively and they never overdose.

What does this mean for us?

We have a natural and innate need to bond.When we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other. If we can’t – because of trauma, isolation, or other psychological problems – we end up bonding with something that will provide relief, like gambling, pornography, or drugs.

Portugal Case Study

In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin. Every year, they punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. Finally, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition set up a panel of scientists and doctors to discover what would genuinely solve the problem. The panel looked all the new evidence and concluded that the government decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack and use all the money formerly spent on cutting addicts off and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society.

So the new method for handling drug addiction included: residential rehab, psychological therapy, and a massive program to reintegrate the former addict back into society. In other words, addicts were given opportunities to get work and start up their own small businesses. The goal was to make sure that every addict had a reason to get out of bed every morning. When spoken to, these addicts said they rediscovered purpose and they rediscovered bonds and relationships with the wider society.

15 years later, injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Overdose, HIV and addiction have significantly reduced.

So how do we help drug addicts? Connect with them. The core message we should be telling them is this: you’re not alone and we love you. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.

And that brings us back to “time in” – spending time with our children, giving them our attention, and making sure they feel our love – because love protects them.

Related:

Baby’s First Kick for Daddy

A couple of mornings ago, I was lying in bed taking note of baby’s activity. He was moving a lot more than usual, although his movements were still fairly soft and fluttery. I decided to see if I could feel the movements externally before asking hubby to try so I placed my hand over the spot baby had been kicking – just below my navel… Baby must have thought it was a game of hide and seek because he decided to start kicking elsewhere after that. Whenever I shifted my hand to the new spot, he would kick somewhere else.

Our little rascal isn’t even born and he’s already playing up, I thought.

Later that night, baby gave a stronger kick and I made a remark to hubby who then placed his hand instinctively over my belly. I didn’t think he would be able to feel anything since the kicks were so soft, but hubby was soon rewarded with a flutter that was baby’s first kick for his Daddy.

They say that the realisation of being a parent hits Mom first because she is the one that endures the kicks, the added weight on belly plus all the other miscellaneous pregnancy symptoms, while for Dad, the idea of having a baby remains quite abstract. I guess it is an extra special moment for Dad as the first tangible connection is made with baby when he feels baby kick for the first time.