The rasp of a cat’s tongue; the eyelash flutter of a “butterfly” kiss; the pinch and burn of an ice cream headache.
Touch is one of our most primitive and universal senses. All the way back to the first multicellular life forms—about 2.1 billion years ago—almost all animals have relied on their somatosensory (body-sensing) systems to navigate, find food and evaluate their surroundings.
Pain, pressure and temperature all register as “touch.” So do visceral feelings, such as aches and nausea, and kinesthetic senses, like proprioception, the spatial awareness of our bodies.
Receptors and nerve endings pipe all this data to the somatosensory cortex, the brain’s busiest hub of direct input. Humans concentrate about 90 percent of this area’s processing power on signals from the hands and face. The result: fine motor control that ranks right up there with opposable thumbs as a competitive evolutionary advantage. It allows us to bait hooks, conduct open-heart surgery and mouse-click to escape endless coverage of the Kardashians.
Our sense of touch also helps us balance, carry containers of water and pick up babies without crushing them. It can be powerful (drop that scalding pot!), subtle enough to distinguish a Braille “A” from a “B” or encourage us into the shade before a sunburn blooms.
But touch goes beyond being the world’s best onboard navigation system. It’s the first language we learn and remains our richest form of expressing emotion. It can comfort, reduce stress, kindle romance, create camaraderie and even communicate feelings with 78 percent accuracy between strangers, according to a study by DePauw University, which tested the ability to convey specific emotions, like anger, sympathy or love, through five seconds of touch.
Newborns awaken first to tactile input, before their other senses come fully online. Carole M. Pasahow, Ph.D., clinical director for New Jersey’s Accredited Center for Psychological Counseling, explains: “A mother’s touch especially helps babies feel safe and comfortable when they do not understand their world very well.”
We return to that calming technique throughout life, from swaddling to hugging loved ones who are upset. Brigham Young University recently proved that couples can lower tension and blood pressure by massaging each other.
“Touch is one of our most basic and primal sources of connection,” explains Daniel Knowles, a chiropractor at the Network Family Wellness Center in Boulder, Colo. “Skin forms the body’s largest organ, accounting for approximately 16 percent of a person’s weight.
“Its extensive network of nerves feeds information constantly to the brain concerning our surroundings. Unfortunately, in the United States people are living in a chronic, overwhelming fight-or-flight mode. Touch can effortlessly bring us out of this state of distress.”
That’s a lesson that Temple Grandin understood instinctively as an autistic teenager. Even though her autism prevented her from being able to tolerate human touch, she somehow innately knew that when she needed consolation or calming, she needed the sensation of touch in the form of pressure. Grandin invented a “squeeze machine” that, in essence, provided her with a mechanical hug. Later in her life, when she observed cattle being moved through stockyards, she recognized their need for calming and felt her invention could help them. Grandin went on to use her invention to revolutionize stockyard design, making it more thoughtful and humane. Now a best-selling author, the professor of animal science was honored as one of Time magazine’s most 100 influential people of 2010. That same year, Claire Danes played her in HBO’s semi-biographical film “Temple Grandin,” which won five Emmys.
From our fascination with Grandin to the yoga boom and insurance-covered acupuncture, we’re instinctively seeking more and more ways to stay in tune with touch, as our digital culture erodes distance.
Touch can also relieve depression and loneliness. Sweden’s Karolinska Institute discovered that weekly massage consoled bereaved people, even two months after the study ended. In fact, any contact—a hug or clasped hand—can comfort in a crisis, explains researcher Berit Seiger Cronfalk.
Cancer patient Brenda Jones had affectionate cats and a “wonderful, huge” family to help her through treatments three years ago. Still, her anger spin-cycled over the bleak, brusque hospital—specifically its institutional gowns. So, she learned to sew and whipped up a warm, soft flannel kimono in splashy colors. About 500 garments later, Jones runs the non-profit Hugwraps with help from local New Jersey students.
She armors patients in their favorite colors and patterns, and fabric as soft as an embrace. “You can’t take anyone with you into treatments,” the survivor explains. “But it’s like I’m there holding their hands.”
And a gesture that simple can go a long way. Friendly touch increases trust and social connections, according to UC Berkeley research into NBA teams. All those high-fives, chest-bumps and butt slaps really do boost performance. Another study revealed that students volunteer in class nearly twice as often after a supportive back pat.
Some experts suggest that’s because we’re hard-wired to share problem solving across many brains. Even a light, casual touch reminds us of that support network. It also releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which improves communication and bonding.
For millennia, humans have manipulated their somatosensory systems not only to grow closer, but also to feel better. On the most basic level, even young children instinctively clutch a body part that has been bumped or scraped. And it turns out that cuddling an “owie” really does relieve discomfort, according to scientists at the University College London. The contact resets the brain’s map of the body and can wipe away 64 percent of the pain.
“Healing touch practices are found in all known cultures around the globe,” says Lynn Temenski, Chair of Asian Holistic Health and Massage Therapy at New York’s Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Western massage, for example, kneads muscles to improve blood circulation, aiding waste removal and delivery of nutrients and oxygen. Eastern practices like Shiatsu seek to balance energy flow.
A desire to care for others through touch led Michael Hollerbach first into a massage career, and now into the chiropractic program at Life University, so he could help more people. “The principles of Chiropractic made sense to me: just move the bone off of the nerve and let the body heal itself—simple,” he says.
Such ideas stretch all the way back to the profession’s charismatic and controversial founder D.D. Palmer, D.C., who gave the first documented adjustment in 1895. He adjusted Harvey Lillard’s misaligned vertebrae into place and is credited with restoring his hearing. Palmer elaborated this into a discipline that improved health through proper spinal alignment.
He saw this calling as mystical, as well as medical, much like his son B.J. Palmer, D.C., who wrote, “We chiropractors work with the subtle substance of the soul. We release the prisoned impulses, a tiny rivulet of force, that emanates from the mind and flows over the nerves to the cells and stirs them to life.
“You ask ‘Can chiropractic cure appendicitis or the flu?’ Have you more faith in a knife or a spoonful of medicine than in the power that animates the living world?”
Healing Hands Practitioners are still putting the Palmers’ vitalistic philosophies into action today with adjustments and energetic healing. For Deedra Farmer—another Life University chiropractic student—that began with a massage therapy license, then Craniosacral training at The Upledger Institute. “Over my 14-year career, my sense of touch has become amazingly sensitive and very intuitive,” she says.
“There is definitely energy transference between myself and my patients when my hands are touching them. Plus, the comfort of my touch enhances the overall soothing and healing aspect.”
She prefers the directness of Craniosacral to the more hands-off tradition of Reiki, a spiritual practice developed by Mikao Usui, a Japanese Buddhist, in 1922. Reiki practitioners
believe they direct universal energy through their palms, promoting self-healing and a state of equilibrium. Depending on the tradition, this can involve light, precise touch or hovering the hands a few centimeters from the recipient’s body for 3–5 minutes. In Western practice, the positions often align with the chakras and meridian energy lines of Eastern traditions.
Knowles points out, “With Reiki, there is an intention of an energy exchange or a therapeutic result.” He is drawn instead to Chiropractic and Network Spinal Analysis, which are “at their core, philosophical and clinical interactions.”
Network, which began with New York’s Donald Epstein, D.C., in 1982, blends various chiropractic techniques. Through light touch, network aspires to release large amounts of spinal tension, which proponents say can have life-changing results. In a study at the University of California, Irvine, 76 percent of patients reported improvements in their physical, emotional and mental health, as well as stress response and life enjoyment.
“Reorganizational healing seeks to advance the state of the patient, to help them develop internal tools and strategies to self-heal, realign and self-correct,” Knowles says. “Adjustments apply forces to the spine and its surrounding tissues with the intention of removing interference between brain and body, between matter and innate intelligence. It’s about reconnecting man the physical with man the spiritual.”
From a handshake to a relaxing sauna or spinal fine-tuning, harnessing the powers of touch can be done in many ways. So reach out and grab hold of the ones that suit you best. Savor that silky gelato. Roll down that grassy slope. Rub your thumb across that river-smoothed pebble you carry in your pocket.
You may find such indulgences open a portal to all your senses, including the five TCL has explored in this series, and their unique abilities to heal, delight and bring balance.
This awakening may have profound ripple effects. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses.”