Monday, July 4, 2011

The Power of Touch

Little touches mean so much (source)
Touch is arguably the most important sense we have. Some non-human primates spend upwards of 20% of the time grooming, a behavior primates rely upon for its social functions and ability to solve conflicts. In humans, touch may be even more important. Touch is the most highly developed sense at birth, and as you might guess, far preceded language as a means of communication in human evolution.

It's a wonder then, that such a small amount of research has been conducted on touch, whereas a relatively high proportion of research has gone to vision or nutrition studies as two examples (I mean, can you imagine a university with a touchology department?). I'm not saying we shouldn't study nutrition. Instead, I'm arguing that what we need is more researchers interested in the study of tactile communication. Why you ask? Because this area of research is ripe for new discoveries. Read on!

Touch promotes trust and cooperation. One of the primary functions of touch is to promote trust and cooperation. For example, the insular cortex, a brain region active during physical touch is also activated during experiences of trust (to be fair, the insular cortex is also active during a number of positive and negative affective experiences). As Juli has mentioned in a previous post, touch is also linked to inferences of warmth and cooperation. For example, sensations of warmth from a hot coffee cup led participants to infer increased warmth and trust of a new interaction partner. That touch is implicated in trust suggests that it is vital for developing close relationships. Future research will determine how and why.

Perhaps Michelangelo should have painted the hands touching?
Touch reduces threat and anxiety. A second function of touch involves the reduction of threat reactions. Touch soothes in times of stress. For example, women showed decreased threat-related brain activation while anticipating a shock delivered from an experimenter when holding the hand of a spouse versus holding the hand of a stranger. As another example, infants who are receiving touch respond more resiliently to uncomfortable medical procedures. How powerful is a simple touch for our well-being? Researchers don't know yet!

Touch is a language of communication. As I reported in a previous blog post. Physical touches from a stranger that you've never met before can communicate specific emotions such as compassion, fear, and anger-- at levels of accuracy that far-exceed chance. Touch is a language we know relatively little about!

Touch: awkward and effective! (source)
Touch improves performance. Through all of these social bonding processes touch is likely to be a powerful way in which individuals and teams can improve their performance in competitive situations. Earlier, I previewed perhaps the most surprising evidence suggesting that touch and performance are correlated in a previous blog post. In this research, the duration of touch engaged in an early season game during the 2008-2009 NBA season predicted improved performance of both players and teams throughout the entire season. Moreover, the association between touch and season performance remained even after accounting for early season performance. What types of performance and what sorts of teams benefit from touch? The answers will come in the next decade, and I'm excited to be a part of it!

So why aren't you studying touch? I'd love to hear your "excuses" in the comments. ;)

Williams LE, & Bargh JA (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science (New York, N.Y.), 322 (5901), 606-7 PMID: 18948544

Kraus MW, Huang C, & Keltner D (2010). Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10 (5), 745-9 PMID: 21038960

Coan JA, Schaefer HS, & Davidson RJ (2006). Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological science, 17 (12), 1032-9 PMID: 17201784


  1. Kathy Kolcaba's middle range theory of comfort integrates touch. Her website, The Comfort Line, has a research section where you can find some small studies.

    I've been asking similar questions about why patients receiving mental health care are not touched for comfort, human connection and reassurance. It seems cruel to intentionally withhold it from people who are in distress, regardless of whether the origins of distress are physiologic or psychologic.

  2. Thanks aek, will definitely check out the Comfort Line!

    Regarding your mental health care point, I agree that touch is a potentially untapped avenue of treatment.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I have weird reactions in mental health appointments regarding touch. My own therapist hugs me and bestows an occasional almost maternal kiss on my cheek. I've known her for many years and she obviously 'gets it.' I tried to shake hands once, and the doctor recoiled. I didn't attempt it thereafter although I wanted to. This psychologist I see shakes my hand before and after each session for cbt now. Nice guy but it is weird. This shrink I just saw told me she's leaving and instinct made me want to 'end things' with a handshake. However, I remembered how the former shrink acted, and just nodded and wished her well. I don't know what the big deal is. Touch - sincere touch - is to me as therapeutic as talk is and I think it would make bonding w/ the provider go quicker. But whatever. We are Not Supposed to do that for boundary reasons or something so now I try not to. Sucks, but it is what it is.

  4. To clarify. The doc I tried to shake hands with wasn't my therapist; rather, a shrink I saw for meds.