The Power of Touch

In ‘New Scientist’ (28th February 2015) is an article ‘The Touch That Made You‘. It is an interesting article about the power of touch. I have always found the power of touch really interesting. Many years ago I read a science article story about twins that were born in a hospital, one of the twins wasn’t doing so well and was placed in an incubator. It was thought that that baby would pass away. There was a policy that the baby needs to be kept in a sterile environment, so no contact with people, even the sibling.

A nurse thought that if the baby was going to pass away then the twin should at least hve had a chance to be near to the sibling before it dies, so she put the twin next to the baby in the incubator and the babies both instinctively reach out and cuddled each other. In this moment the vital signs of the ‘dying’ baby started to improve, and eventually both twins left the hospital healthy.

This story was in an article about epigenetics which is a fascinating field of study about how genes can be expressed (turned on or off) depending on environmental stimuli.

Touch is one of those stimuli, when we experience gentle touch it triggers the release of hormones like endorphines. These endorphines are messenger molecules that ‘tell’ the DNA how it should be expressed triggering healing, wellbeing and a sense of calmness. Touch can also increase bonding and closeness.

The article talks about two different types of touch receptors, one type is useful for every day life, these are mainly in the hands, mouth, and tongue and are useful for dexterity, eating and doing various other everyday tasks that require a good sense of touch. The other type of receptors seem to be linked to gentle touch and slow movements, like stroking. These receptors are mainly found on the scalp, the upper arm, shoulders and down the back and upper legs. There are other sensory receptors that detect pain and other sensations, but these are the two that detect touch.

The other receptors pass signals quickly to the brain, whereas these receptors send signals slowly to the brain, with the signals taking perhaps up to a second to arrive at the brain.

One thing the article touches on briefly is how touch can be used to influence. This isn’t covered in any great detail but this has always interested me, and learning about the two different types of touch receptors helps me to understand the impact touch can have on someone based on where that touch is. I know that may sound like I am saying something obvious, but it is more about some of the things I haven’t thought much about in the past. So there are some places clearly you would get very different responses to other areas, because some touch would clearly be inappropriate. This isn’t what I was thinking about, but rather the difference between touching on the hand versus touching on the upper arm.

As a hypnotherapist I may well touch the back of the hand to do anchoring, which is a process of creating an association, and if I chose to touch the upper arm instead in the past it may well have been an arbitory decision, whereas know I know that touching the upper arm is likely to lead to endorphines being released, it likely to lead to an increase of wellbeing and healing, so if I want these elements to be present it would be sensible to touch the upper arm rather than the back of the hand. Perhaps if I wanted something more neutral I would touch the back of the hand instead.

Likewise for influence, if a sales person wants to create a connection and a feeling of calm well-being in the customer they would be better off gently touching the upper arm. I know generally people are more agreeable and more likely to do as they are asked and more likely to follow suggestions if you touch them gently as you ask them without giving any attention to the touch, so that they don’t pay conscious attention to the touch.

What are your views on touch, and on the use of touch? Have you used touch in therapy or sales or as a parent and found it works well or have you had a different experience?

You can check out further information about touch and emotion research here

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