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  • Erin L. Miller


Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Two people holding hands

If you’ve spent any amount of time with me, you know I value touch. No opportunity is missed to hug, squeeze an arm, run my fingers through a friend's hair, touch a stranger’s back in a crowded room to indicate I’m passing through. And this doesn’t account for the complex and varied types of interpersonal touch shared between romantic partners.

Not everyone, I realize, shares my love for physical touch. Some people are more predisposed to express this way than others. Social and family factors play a role. My love of interpersonal touch began, as most things do, in childhood. My father is a quiet person so often the way he expressed his love for me was through physical cues (a hug or a shoulder squeeze). As I've grown older, touch has similarly operated as a bridge of communication at times when I feel like language falls short.

My own standards of touch are, of course, my own. Different cultures engender different boundaries. One night, I met a Parisian friend for dinner who laughed when I hugged her goodbye. She called it an “American hug” since it flanked the beginning and end of our social interaction (no touching in between). This was so unlike her French friends who practiced open, frequent lines of physical closeness.

The research does, indeed, show America as a "non-contact" culture. The ubiquity of touch that exists in countries like France and Argentina simply doesn't exist in America. The sense of touch is walled off only to lovers, close friends, and family. And yet, touch is so foundational to how we connect with the world and the people around us.

How we practice touch in childhood

Touch is our first language, the one that connects us with our parents. It's the first sense humans develop in the womb. In nearly every stage of children, we're largely fueled by our desire to touch (hugging our parents, exploring the textures of new and different objects, playing with friends, learning the distinctions between pain and pleasure). It's instinctive. But once we move into adolescence and adulthood, physical touch becomes awkward, off limits, sexualized (even innocuous forms of human contact).

Positive effects of touch

Touch can help cultivate social, emotional, and intimate bonds. It stimulates positive physiological responses in the body—and the lack of touch can have the opposite effect.

In the mid-1990s, two scientists traveled to Romania to study the sensory deprivation of children in understaffed orphanages. The touch-deprived children, they found, "had strikingly lower cortisol and growth development levels for their age group."

In another study, it was found that babies born prematurely and kept isolated in incubators without touch from parents or hospital staff failed to thrive. If nurses massaged the premature babies through an incubator, they gained 47% of their body weight in 10 days, and were able to leave the hospital much sooner. Massage specifically has even been shown to increase natural killer cells, which act as the front lines of our immune system, warding off bacteria and disease.

We often perform better and are less aggressive and more relaxed if positive physical contact is a part of our daily lives. It slows down our heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of cortisol, which gives people better control over their stress hormones. Massage has been proven to help anxiety, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, headaches, sports injuries, and more.

Touch affects more of our daily lives than we're probably even aware:

"If teachers place a supportive hand on their shoulders, students tend to participate more in class. Waitresses get higher tips if they touch customers. If doctors touch their patients during a routine office visit, they get higher ratings… For mothers suffering from postpartum depression, if they got a daily 15-minute massage from their partner, this was as effective as an antidepressant. Despite the stress of a newborn, this physical connectedness helped them feel close."

Physical contact plays a key role in our mental and physical development and well-being. It's an important element to communication, personal relationships, and fighting disease.

So why aren't we touching each other more?

There are many factors, including age, climate, gender, technology, culture, religion, sociopolitical influences, and the strength of emotional bonds between people. For example: older people are less likely to touch than younger people, strangers of the opposite sex are less likely to touch each other than those of the same sex, and warmer climates tend to promote more touch and less personal space.

Some argue that technology has played a recent role in low human contact. Fewer face-to-face gatherings are needed since we can now have entire conversations through text or phone. We’re spending more time touching our phones and forgetting about the valuable effects we get from physical contact with each other.

Some caveats

When I was teaching college undergraduates, I was deeply discouraged from management to even hug my students for fear of a sexual harassment suit or unethical relationships developing between teachers and students. It goes without saying that interpersonal touch in a professional environment is leagues away from drinks with friends.

It’s hard to ignore the implications of an increasing public awareness of historical sexual abuse when it comes to touch. Many women simply don't feel safe with unprovoked physical contact from men. Some people (both men and women) have traumatic life experiences that inhibit them from feeling comfortable with touch.

As with anything, though, context matters. Communication matters. But if we shun touch altogether, we're missing out on the opportunity for deeper physical connectedness on a larger scale.

Where this leaves us

When we approach touch from a place of fear, it becomes less acceptable. When it becomes scarce, it can breed a society with fewer connections and more divisions. Social touch, when approached in a safe, friendly, and inclusive way, can help create deeper, more meaningful bonds. In the same way that it would be difficult to navigate a world without sight or sound, touch is an integral component to how we live.

In a very powerful way, touch tells us who we are by physically connecting us to our own bodies, and, in turn, connecting us to those around us.

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