Two things have been occupying my thoughts lately, and at first I thought they were unrelated. First is the murder of so many people in Orlando, Florida, and the social media storm that followed. Rainbows are everywhere. I am happy that so many people see themselves as allies, or at least, lacking the prejudice that many Americans, as well as people all over the world, still harbor. (And of course, Senate Republicans did everything they could to make sure there would be no change to gun laws, even though no one has a good reason for ordinary citizens to own an assault rifle.) After a while, though, the digital sentiments seem shallow and unconsidered, like so many things one sees on Facebook and Twitter. Clicking “Like” or ♥ is not exactly taking action. Well meant, for sure, but lacking tangibility.
Also on my mind is touch. I think about this a lot for my own reasons that do not belong in a blog post, but recently some women in my yoga class and I were talking about the voice in our heads that shows up when the teacher walks around the room–“Pick me! Step on my feet! Press on my back!” Do we want to feel special? Singled out? Maybe. I didn’t think that was my issue, because all my teachers at the studio have a way of making me feel that I matter, that my practice matters. I think we are all hoping to be touched for the sake of that human connection, for whatever chemicals that touch releases in our brains. We know it’s important for babies, so much so that hospitals have volunteers whose job it is to cuddle the newborns. Does that need ever end?
Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes in his post, “8 Reasons Why We Need Human Touch More Than Ever,” that more touch leads to less violence, more trust between individuals, stronger team dynamics, (non-sexual) emotional intimacy, and overall well-being, along with some health benefits. There is even a study by a French psychologist that shows students who got a slight tap on their upper arm from the professor when they volunteered to work at something on the board were much more likely to volunteer to do so again compared to students who received only words of praise.
Dacher Kerchner of UC Berkeley writes, “We … know that touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.’” That’s it–oxytocin!
This neurochemical is released by the brain during childbirth to increase the motility of the uterus, and is also released when a mother’s nipples are stimulated, to help in breastfeeding. But, researchers say, its release into specific regions of the brain also affects emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors. It contributes to relaxation, trust, and psychological stability. Some researchers have found that it can reduce stress responses, such as anxiety.
I don’t mean to suggest that if the sick person who killed club-goers in Orlando had been hugged more as a child, this would not have happened. That is simplistic, and I know nothing of his childhood other than his religious upbringing and his homophobic father. Also, there are some perfectly nice people who don’t want to be touched–don’t want to give and receive hugs, for instance, or don’t like casual touches from people to whom they are not emotionally attached.
Those of us who do like that sort of contact, though, are deeply and positively affected by it, I believe. There is comfort in it, as long as it isn’t in some way inappropriate. It offers reassurance, acknowledges that we are present and that others are aware of our presence and like it. It makes us feel safer and cared for. In some contexts, it helps us feel attractive and desirable.
There are memories tied to touch. I remember clearly what my mother’s cool, soft hand felt like on my forehead when I was a child sick in bed, and she soothed me and smoothed my hair back from my face. I remember exactly how it felt at a family event when she sat next to me and patted me on the back while we talked with everyone. I remember my father’s hugs as all-encompassing. I also remember exactly what it felt like when either of my parents hit me. Not just the physical memory–the feelings associated with it: fear and anger.
Touch, welcome touch, matters. Usually when someone touches us in a positive way, other things come along for the ride–a pleasant tone of voice, a smile, a sympathetic or empathetic word, laughter, congenial words. As a package deal, I have to believe this makes a difference in how we feel about ourselves and others and affects who we become. Maybe we ought to consider this in our daily interactions. Our tone, the look on our face, the hand on a shoulder, might keep us more aware of the role we play in others’ lives and how interconnected we are.
It might save us all.