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How the power of touch heals our mind and body

BY Dr Max Pemberton

28th Jan 2023 Wellbeing

How the power of touch heals our mind and body

Touch is more important than you might think for our mental and physical wellbeing. Dr Max explores what that reveals about love, humanity and care

Over the years I have been fascinated to read about studies into the power of touch.

One famous study examined video footage of how people responded to those near them who had been the victim of a crime. Researchers looked at their body language and interaction with the victim, and compared this with behaviours in non-human primates.

"Offering hugs to soothe victims of violence is a primal instinct that we inherited from primate ancestors"

It found that there are striking similarities between the ways that humans and primates such as chimpanzees console one another and demonstrate compassion and care. It involves different types of touching and closeness.

This seems to suggest that offering hugs to soothe victims of violence is a primal instinct that we inherited from primate ancestors.

But to me, it also speaks about the importance of closeness and intimacy.

Touch is the ultimate pain relief

Power of touch, holding hands to comfort loved oneHolding hands with a loved one can sync your heart rates and offer pain relief

Another study found that holding hands to comfort a loved one can actually reduce their pain. It found that when people who are close to one another hold hands, their bodies synchronise their heart rate and breathing rate.

Through a process that’s not fully understood, if one of them is in pain, the pain appears to reduce.

I’ve seen this so many times when the husband or wife of a patient in distress or discomfort reaches out and holds their hand and, as if by magic, in a few minutes they become settled and less distressed.

"Holding hands to comfort a loved one can actually reduce their pain"

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, as we have known for many years about the importance of touch. It symbolises safety and love and, we have come to understand, this is actually one of the most important aspects for development as a child.

Is it any wonder that, when we are upset, distressed and vulnerable as adults, we seek out the same thing?

Touch is a fundamental need

Soft monkey doll In one experiment, monkeys consistently chose a soft toy over food

The value of touch was demonstrated by a series of disturbing experiments on rhesus monkeys back in the 1950s by Harry Harlow, an American psychologist. His work showed the incredible drive for warmth and intimacy that we all have.

In his experiments, he took young monkeys and placed them in different enclosures.

When given a choice between a surrogate “mother” to cling to made of wire mesh that had a ready supply of milk or a warm, soft mother that did not provide any food, they chose, to everyone’s astonishment, the comfort over food.

"It was not food, but being comforted and intimate, that was the most important thing"

This flew in the face of what was expected, as until then it had always been assumed that food was the main motivator for living creatures. Yet this appeared to show that it was not food, but being comforted and intimate, that was the most important thing.

Those monkeys who were not given a soft surrogate mother to cling to froze in fear and cried, crouched down or sucked their thumbs.

He described these experiments as a study of love and they showed for the first time how vital the feeling of being loved is to us. His conclusion that love and support are essential factors to normal development has been supported by countless further scientific studies.

Personally I find this all incredibly comforting. For me, this really speaks of the power of love.

Read more: The power of touch

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