The power of touch

BY Anne Mullens

29th Nov 2019 Wellbeing

The power of touch

It’s vital for our health, wellness and happiness, say the world’s leading neuroscientists

Every two or three months, Thyago Ohana goes out on the busy streets of Vienna with a sign saying “Free Hugs.” The handsome 32-year-old Brazilian, who works in international trade at India’s Vienna embassy, chooses a popular locale, like the historic shopping street, Kaerntner Strasse. There he opens his arms to anyone who wants a hearty embrace.

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He does it because back in 2012, when he was feeling very stressed and anxious during a visit to Paris, a stranger gave him a free hug. He’s never forgotten how it filled him with unexpected calm and joy.

For those who take up his offer, the hug makes them laugh and smile. But sometimes it does more, as when an elderly woman in a tour group stopped and watched him. The group moved on, but she lingered and asked, “Can I have a hug?”

“Of course you can!” said Thyago who wrapped his arms round her.

When they broke their embrace, she kept holding onto his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Thank you,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I was hugged this way.”

It’s a memory that still makes Thyago emotional. “It was a really powerful moment of human connection. It's why I keep doing it.”

"Special fibres transmit sensations of touch, connecting us to others"

Of our five senses, our sense of touch is the one we are most apt to take for granted and yet the one we can least do without.

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“A child can be born blind or deaf and they will grow up just fine, with no cognitive impairments,” says US neuroscientist David J Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. “Yet if an infant is deprived of loving social touch for the first two years of life, then all sorts of disasters unfold.”

Citing the terrible experience of some young children who were deprived of loving touch in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s, Linden describes how not only did they have psychological and intellectual difficulties, but their immune systems did not develop properly, nor did their digestive systems.

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That’s one reason why when babies are born, the naked infant is now usually placed on their mother’s naked skin. Research studies now encourage the regular stroking and holding of premature infants, even through special portholes in incubators. It's also a reason why classes in infant massage techniques have gained passionate supporters worldwide.

"Research tells us that maximising touch in our lives is a good thing"

Elsie Peña Tretvik, of Molde, Norway, sought out such a class because she wanted to comfort and bond with her colicky infant daughter, Maya. Born and raised in Costa Rica, Elsie was visiting home with three-month-old Maya when her daughter was crying for up to three hours each evening.

One of her old friends, Paola Rodríguez, just happened to be the CEO of the International Association of Infant Massage, whose more than 30 international chapters include one in Costa Rica. When Elsie contacted her looking for help, she suggested Elsie take one of the organisation’s five-day courses.

The course changed Elsie’s life. “Not only did I learn how to help Maya relax and relieve her colic, I learned how to read her emotional cues and build my confidence as a mother.” She decided to certify as a teacher in infant massage, and now offers the course to parents in Molde. “The benefits are huge. My husband and I took the course together,” said Elsie. Having recently given birth to her second child, she will teach Maya, now two, how to help and do some gentle strokes.

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It's only in relatively recent years that science has begun to understand the highly complex system of nerves, sensors and receptors that link our skin and brain to our environment and the other people in it. Says Linden: “There is still so much we don’t know about various touch sensations.” We do know, however, “there are separate sensors for texture, vibration, pressure and itch,” he says.


One of the leading touch researchers in the world is Dr Håkan Olausson, professor of clinical neuroscience at Linköping University in Sweden. He was part of a team that found special touch fibres, called C-tactile afferent fibres, that are responsible for registering and transmitting the emotional meaning of gentle, slow strokes and caresses. These nerves respond optimally when touched at around 32°C—the temperature of a human hand. “They are particularly sensitive to caresses by other people, but also respond to many other types of touch, such as pressing on the skin.” says Dr Olausson. When the CT fibres don’t work properly, it may undermine making emotional connections to others.

Research led by neuroscientist Francis McGlone, at Liverpool John Moores University, has found that children on the autism spectrum may have a difference in the functioning of their CT fibres that causes them to feel another person’s soft touch as unpleasant.

As we age, our sense of touch gets less sensitive, but Dr Olausson and another team of researchers found that the pleasantness of touch remains and is even enhanced with age.

Alas, as Thyago Ohana knows, the elderly among us, while appreciating touch more, may be the most touch-deprived. Linden notes the research is clear about the benefits of massage and other forms of social touch for the elderly, but it hasn’t yet been translated widely into care homes or other senior services.

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Dr Manuel Arroyo-Morales, is a professor of physiotherapy at the University of Granada in Spain, where researchers study “the effect of hands on the human body.” He's interested in the impact of massage therapies on cancer patients, finding that it partially reduces pain and fatigue, strengthens the immune system and reduces anxiety. Importantly, they've found that some of the outcomes depend on the attitude of the patient towards touch. It's the specific type of massage and the “consensual touching relationship” that provide the key benefits, says Dr Arroyo-Morales.

Joannie McCutcheon, 65, knows that first hand. In 2005 she was living in Amsterdam, working in a multi-national company as an IT specialist, when she was diagnosed with two brain tumours. One was a benign meningioma and the other a more aggressive oligodendroglioma. She named them Melanie and Ollie. “They're part of me; I needed to accept them.”

Joannie had surgery to remove part of Ollie (the other part was inoperable), which is typically fatal within a few years. Separated from her husband, with grown children, in 2007 she moved back home to Scotland and in 2015 became a volunteer with the Iris Cancer Partnership, a charity that provides free massages to cancer patients from specially trained therapists. Joannie applies her IT skills on the board of Iris, and as a patient receives a massage every three weeks from her own personal massage therapist and now friend, Angela Secretan. “I can go in feeling exhausted and headachey. She’ll massage my head or my back, and she does reflexology on my feet. She seems to know instinctively what I need and together we decide what is best for me at that moment. It's always just gorgeous and I come out feeling that everything is OK again.”

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Joannie feels her regular massages, as well as her adopting the attitude that her tumours were a gift that brought new relationships into her life, have kept her alive after others with the same diagnosis have died.

As well as sustaining life, the emotional connection of touch therapy can also have a profound and moving effect at life’s end. Simon Robey knows that well. He’s the coordinator of complementary therapies and the interim head of supportive care for St Joseph’s Hospice, in east London. As part of its care the hospice provides, all free of charge, a wide range of touch therapies not only to their dying patients, but to their loved ones and families, who are all under an inordinate amount of stress.

Simon Robey describes the experience of a young woman, in her early thirties, who was hours away from death. The family was supportive, staying by her bedside day and night, but the therapist offered additional support massaging the dying woman’s hands, legs, feet. “She was drifting in and out of consciousness... but we all noticed she became remarkably more relaxed; she really responded to those sensory touches. For the family there was something reassuring in the way that it helped to make her final hours more comfortable.”

So how do we get more loving touch, while we are hale and hearty, into our day-to-day lives? For some, the answer is “cuddle parties”—non-sexual three-plus-hour social events in which participants do just that—cuddle. The Irish Cuddle Salon is held in Dublin on the third Sunday of every month. Wendy Stephens, 33, heard about it from a friend. As a single woman, she was nervous and thought it might be uncomfortable. But she found it a “beautiful, grounding experience” and hasn’t missed a month ever since. It improves her sleep and her appetite and decreases feelings of loneliness.

Neuroscientist David J Linden says however you do it, “maximising touch in your life is a good thing”—whether a therapeutic massage, holding hands, petting a dog, going to the hairdresser, hugging our kids, our partners or even a stranger.

“When we put our hands on each other,” wrote Linden with co-author Martha Thomas in a recent issue of AARP The Magazine, “we’re tapping into deep associations between touch and emotion that are kindled at the dawn of life.” 

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