The Psychology of Touch
The Psychology of Touch

The Psychology of Touch: How the Primary Sense Drives Human Behavior

Touch has healing powers. Skin-to-skin contact with babies in the NICU can help strengthen them, and a 20 second hug triggers enough oxytocin to create a bonding effect between two people.

On the other hand, touch can hurt. An abusive hand or no touch at all can affect someone’s attachment style, leaving one without a secure attachment, and, despite craving touch, will leave someone untrusting of touch.

In looking at research on the regulations of touch in psychotherapy and counseling, we can see how touch drives human behavior. The Zur Institute published an article by Ofer Zur, Ph.D., and Nola Nordmarken, MFT, called To Touch or Not to Touch: Exploring the Myth of Prohibition on Touch in Psychotherapy and Counseling. Research in this article addresses the role of touch in psychotherapy and counseling and examines the importance of touch and how it can be explored safely and ethically in the psychotherapy and counseling fields.

According to Zur Institute, touch is the first of our senses to develop:

Touch is often referred to as the "mother of all senses" as it is the first to develop in the embryo (Montagu, 1971), and all other senses - sight, sound, taste, and smell are derived from it. Within three weeks of conception, we have developed a primitive nervous system which links skin cells to our rudimentary brain. "The tactile system is the earliest sensory system to become functional (in the embryo) and may be the last to fade" (Fosshage, 2000).

Can the fact that our other four senses derive from touch be a metaphor for how our behavior derives from touch as well?

Recent research done by the Touch Research Institute has demonstrated that touch triggers a cascade of chemical responses, including a decrease in urinary stress hormones (cortisol, catecholamines, norepinephrine, epinephrine), and increased serotonin and dopamine levels. The shift in these bio-chemicals has been proven to decrease depression (Field, 1998, 2003). Hence, touch is good medicine.

When used appropriately, touch elicits a positive response. On the other hand, the absence of touch or inappropriate/hurtful touch can have a negative impact on a person’s well-being. Therefore, touch may be the sense that drives our behavior.

In fact, the absence of loving touch has been documented to have profound impact on the will to live. Death rates for under-touched infants less than one year of age, in institutes during the 1920’s ranged from 30% to 100% (Hunter & Struve, 1998). During the early 30’s, Bellevue hospital in New York challenged the prevailing norms and authorized staff to incorporate physical contact in their care protocols. The mortality rate dropped on that unit from 30% to 10% […]
Abused, neglected or touch deprived children learn not to trust touch. They tend to have great difficulty feeling of value, feeling truly powerful, or of forming reciprocally supportive relationships as adults. They are injured by lack of touch or by abusive touch (Heller, 1997).

Perhaps you remember psychologist Harry Harlow’s monkeys from your Psychology 101 class during the undergraduate days. Touch, as opposed to having a physical need met such as food, was concluded to lead to the secure attachment needed to feel safe exploring one’s environment:

The monkeys were offered access to two surrogate mothers: a “soft” terrycloth mother that was warmed by a light bulb that provided a positive tactile experience, and a wire mother with a bottle attached to it for feeding. The infants spent only the amount of time necessary for feeding with the wire mother and when left alone with her would cower in a corner. When given the choice of both mothers, they would cling to the “soft” mother for up to twenty-two hours a day and, in contrast, when left alone with her, would give her a few hugs and then felt secure enough to explore a strange object on their own.

Ultimately the terrycloth mother did not support normal development as it was concluded that “they needed interactive touch to support normal development.”

In conclusion, touch builds trust and allows us to bond. Abusive touch or neglect of touch does the opposite to a detrimental effect. Therefore, touch might be what ultimately drives our behavior.

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