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The Science of Touch: A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

science of touch
Image Source: Design Your Way

When I was a new Mum, I was warned not to carry my baby too much or he would get spoiled. “Try not to pick him up immediately when he cries or he will expect to be picked up whenever he makes a sound,” they said. In my ignorance, I heeded that advice – initially – until I learned that you can’t spoil babies because their rational brains are too undeveloped for them to have the clarity of thought to manipulate their parents.

When babies are born, much of the rational brain is undeveloped and they are ruled largely by their reptilian and mammalian brains in the first few years of life. Given the very limited repertoire of actions a babies has at birth, crying is a baby’s only means of saying, “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m overstimulated”. When babies cry, they are not trying to exercise their lungs or control their parents. They cry because they are communicating a need whether emotional or physical. For a baby, an emotional need is no less important than a physical need, and when that emotional need is unfulfilled, the pain the baby feels can be as strong as a physical hurt.

Touch is as Essential as Sunlight

Contrary to the early parenting advice I received, picking up babies and holding them a lot is not really bad for them at all – in fact, it is important because babies need touch. It is vital for their survival.

At the end of World War II, the babies raised in the arms of village women, surrounded by children, goats and dogs, who were fed goat’s milk and eventually from the communal stockpot, were thriving better than the babies who were sent to pristine field hospitals where they slept in stainless steel cots, lived in hygienic wards and received 24-hour feeds of special infant milk formula.

The reason for this is because one of the basic needs a baby requires is love – which, when you break it down, is really just the physical and emotional connection to another person.

See also: Children need touching and attention – Harvard University

science of touch
Image Source: Inspired

The science of touch supports this. Even as babies grow into children, they will continue to need that connection in order to grow, learn and stay healthy.

Young children, especially, emotionally recharge themselves by connecting with their parents through touch. You may notice this when your toddler climbs onto your lap only to bounce off again seconds later to run off an play.

The biggest compliment a child can give a parent is to frequently run back to touch them briefly.  Such actions are known as “emotional refueling” – a child’s need to reconnect with Mum so they can continue with their independent activities. – The Science of Parenting

Touch remains important whether you are dealing with adults or children – something to remember as our children grow older… even our teenagers who get embarrassed by our public displays of affection will still enjoy a hug in private.

When I was a student, I had to assist in a surgical procedure. The patient needed a biopsy of his jaw joint and the surgeon had requested the anaesthetist to insert the tube through the patient’s nose. Inserting the tube through the nose is much more uncomfortable than if it goes through the mouth and I remember watching as the patient writhed on the operating table. Many times, I wanted to take his hand to offer support but I was scared that he would discard my hand in disdain. When I finally worked up the courage to take his hand, he surprised me by gripping my hand back and I realised I was silly not to have offered my hand sooner.

science of touch
Image Source: Tohoku J Exp Med 2011

Touch Therapy

Proper uses of touch can also play a role in the healing practice of medicine:

  • studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
  • massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression.
  • getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Proper uses of touch can also make a difference in effective education:

  • when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.
  • when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.
  • touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children – some research suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.

Touch Increases Compliance, Helping Behaviour and Performance

There are numerous studies demonstrating the power of touch. Something as simple as a light touch on the arm can increase compliance and helping behaviour by:

  • encouraging people to return a lost item
  • encouraging people to leave a bigger tip
  • making people more likely to help out
  • encouraging people to be more compliant
  • increasing your chances of selling your car
  • increasing your chances of getting a date

Touch can even increase performance:

A touch can be so subtle and fleeting, but its effect transcends – we may not even remember the touch, but we will remember the way we felt.

science of touch

Appropriate Touches

As always, with a topic as sensitive as this, some caution and disclaimers are necessary. While touch can be extremely beneficial, it must also remain in the realm of propriety. What’s appropriate or inappropriate depends on many factors:

  • your relationship with the individual
  • cultural considerations
  • quality of the touch – intensity, duration and circumstances
  • accompanying signals – e.g. eye to eye contact

For a general guideline of what is appropriate, San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functionsmakes the following recommendation:

Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it’s always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate. The back is very low in nerve endings, so that’s OK too. – Psychology Today


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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