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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Touch and American Culture

As a student of massage therapy, I find I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about touch. Touch is a very important sense, though often overlooked when considering the senses. The skin truly is the largest sense organ we have. It establishes the physical boundary of our being and gives us information about our environment and the world around us, but it is truly even more significant than that.

There have been many studies done about the importance of touch. In marketing, a person is significantly more likely to buy an object they have actually touched it, and there is now more research being done on "sensory marketing," which is marketing directed towards developing products that have more tactile appeal. A waiter or waitress who lightly touches a patron is more likely to get a higher tip. A person is also more likely to purchase something or agree to a request if they were touched while the request was made.

It's not just a coercion technique. Babies who are not touched or held often do not grow as quickly and often have weakened immune systems, thus making them more subject to illness. Babies and children who do not experience healthy touch as a regular part of their development are much more likely to have emotional issues and exhibit violent behavior. An amazing study completed in the 20th century by touch researcher Ashley Montagu found that children deprived of loving touch suffer the consequences in their bones – small lines of retarded growth, known as Harris lines, appear at the ends of the tibia and the radius.

The importance of touch is even reflected in our language. When something moves us emotionally, we say we are "touched." The words "feel" and "feeling" are used interchangeably to mean either a physical touch or an emotion.

Our bodies and tissues also hold memories and emotions. Muscle memory isn't just something that makes it easier to complete complex tasks we have done before. Our memories are held, not just in our heads, but in our bodies. There is often anger stored in the muscles that were clenched when a triggering event occurred, grief still remaining in the tissues long after the tears have been dried. There is a deep connection between touch and our emotional states, and our emotional well being. Touch reduces stress, releases serotonins and oxytocins, and reduces cortisone levels in the body. Touch also communicates, producing a series of neural, glandular, muscular and mental changes that we interpret as emotion. Research has also linked the quality of touch experiences to competence in interpersonal relationships. The ability to trust others, and empathize with others, is directly related to touching.

As important as it is, how many of us have enough touch in our lives? It seems to be something sorely lacking in our culture, and much of it is wrapped up in our hangups about sex. We dare not touch each other because touch is so often sexualized, and sex has been demonized. But there is certainly such a thing as therapeutic touch, and compassionate touch, and healthy touch.

It's easy to see what kind of ramifications this view on touch can have. If we hold a belief that all touch is sexual in nature, and touch is a basic physiologic need, then is it any wonder we have issues with teenage pregnancy and promiscuity? If sex is seen as the only way to get that particular need met, of course we are going to see more of it, and sometimes - maybe often - in inappropriate ways.

Many of us are probably touch deficient. There is a lot of emphasis on boundaries, particularly in institutions such as corrections and psychiatric facilities. The populations that would likely benefit the most from therapeutic touch are the ones least likely to recieve it, due to their history and also due to the potential abuses that can occur. So often, it is easier to just outlaw something completely than it is to teach the correct way in which it can and should happen. Our society has a similar view of alcohol and drinking - but that's a topic for another post.

Touch is a basic physiologic need, and one that most people don't have enough of. So hug your kids. Hold your sweetie. Treat yourself to a massage, or give one to someone else you're close to. It's worth thinking about what touch means to you, and how you perceive it. After all, it is important.

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