The Science behind Touch
Long ago when working with schools in challenging circumstances to meet the emotional needs of children, parents and staff, I discussed the importance of touch. Many organisations were becoming no-touch zones for safeguarding reasons, so I used neuroscience to reverse policies that were barring people from comforting each other. Fifteen years on and the message remains clear: Tactile communication is essential to wellbeing. And that is a key contributor to how successful we are in business too.
The Process of Touch
Touch is first processed by the skin, which sends neurochemical signals to the brain, that makes us conscious of the touch. Importantly this is when we identify the intention of the physical contact – whether it is friendly, caring or harmful. Primates first demonstrated the impact of touch on behaviour when it was observed that they spend a significant amount of their time grooming each other and then sharing their food with chimps that have groomed them, before others. Touch communicates kindness.
The Current Climate
Consider the elbow bump that originated during the pandemic – a sign that people have created new ways to connect with each other in place of the usual hug or handshake. Touch is a fundamental human need and the right kind releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that promotes trust and co-operation. When our cortex identifies a gentle touch or one that conveys warmth such as a reassuring pat on the back, we feel valued.
The need for physical contact has driven many people to break the rules to seek a hug, just to have that sense of connection and communication that everything is ok. The oxytocin helps us feel better, even when it is mixed with feelings of guilt or shame for violating the rules. It demonstrates how the heart is more powerful than the mind and we are driven to meet our emotional needs.
We see it too in sport when teams celebrate their achievements, such as a goal being scored through ritualised touch like high-5s, hugs or even bodies piling into each other! The touch may be brief, only lasting a couple of seconds, but research by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, found that the more a team’s players touched each other at the start of a season, the better the team played at the end. They were more efficient and helped each other out more. The result was that high-touch teams won more games. Alberto Gallace, neuroscientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca, also reports that studies have shown people perform better on tasks when clapped on the back beforehand – it’s form of reassurance.
Such touch also reduces the neurophysiology of stress. Simply holding the hand of someone who is emotionally aroused can deactivate stress. The concept is not new, hence new-borns having skin-to-skin contact. My son, only a few weeks old, spent time inside an oxygen box meaning I was unable to breastfeed him and the level of his distress meant that nurses conceded and let me hold him for a few precious moments to soothe him. As the vagus nerve recognises touch, the nervous system slows, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, stress hormones such as cortisol reduce, and brain waves show relaxation (Tiffany Field, Touch Research Institute, University of Miami). Together with the release of oxytocin (pictured right), we feel calmer, happier and more in control.
A New Approach
Philosophical traditions pertain to moral sentiments such as gratitude and compassion being essential for a good life. But the extent to which the simplest of actions, human touch, makes a difference to our personal sense of wellbeing and our success within teams is now backed by science. Without touch, Gallace concludes that we experience adverse health conditions physically and emotionally, a result intended to pull social animals together to optimise survival.
We have to remain mindful of covid guidelines and personal preferences, particularly during times of restrictions and uncertainty due to the pandemic, but I urge you to avoid using that as an excuse to avoid any form of touch. People have been deprived of physical contact since March 2020 and many of us are seeking touch for that sense of emotional lift and connection. Without it, many people experience heightened stress, anxiety and sadness. Work out what is ok and then make a point of making a difference to yourself and those around you every day.
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