The Power of touch

Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship. here is how to regain fluency in your first language.

You are in a crowded subway car on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on a city bus. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts

A toddler in his stroller looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to Mom for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quetly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away then back to Mom. She takes his hand again: Squeeze and release.

A twenty-something in a skirt and blazer sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blond wisps of her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.

A couple propped against a pole shares messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair. A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with some elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.

Probing out ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; The researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impact and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality-touch-seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone.

In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. ‘This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We are not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”

But touch they did-it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions-anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent.

Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. “Everywhere we have studied this, people seem able to do it,” he says.

Indeed, we appear to be wired to interpret the touch of our fellow humans. A study providing evidence of this ability was published in 2012 by a team who used fMRI scans to measure brain activation in people being touched. the subjects, all heterosexual males, were shown a video of a man or a woman who was purportedly touching them on the leg.

Unsurprisingly, subjects rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex responded more sharply to a woman’s touch than to a man’s. But here is the twist; the videos were fake. It was always a woman touching the subjects. The results were startling, because the primary somatosensory cortex had been thought to encode only basic qualities of touch, such as smoothness or pressuer.

that its activity varied depending on whom subjects believed was touching them suggests that the emotional and social components of touch are all but inseparatable from physical sensations. The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you.

If touch is a language, it seems we instinctively know how to use it. Btu apparently it’s a skill we take for granted. when asked about it, the subjects in Hertenstein’s studies consistently underestimated their ability to communicate via touch-even while their actions suggested that touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.

“With the face and voice, in general we can identify just one or two positive signals that are not confused with each other,” says Herteinstein. For example, joy is the only positive emotion that has been reliably decoded in studies of the face. Meanwhile, his research shows that touch can communciate multiple positive emotions: Joy, love, gratitude and sympathy.

Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated and precise way to communicate emotions.

It may also increase the speed of communication: If you are close enough to touch, it is often the easiest way to signal something.

this immediacy is particularly noteworthy when it comes to boding. We feel more connected to someone if they touch us. There is not phrase book to translate the language of touch. If anything, esperts have barely begun documenting its grammar and vocabulary. We found that there are many different ways to indicate a given emotion through touch, Hertenstein notes. What;s more how a touch gets interpreted is very context dependent.

Whether we are at the doctor’s office or in a night club plays a huge role in how the brain responds to the same type of contact.

Still, examining some of the notable ways that we communicate and bond through touch reveals the versatility of this tool and suggests ways to make better use of it. There’s much to be gained from embracing our tactile sense-in particular, more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connection with others.

Learning the language of touch

We begin receiving tactile signals even before birth, as the vibration of our mother’s heartbeat is amplified by amniotic fluid. No wonder than that touch plays a critical role in parent-child relationships from the start. it’s an essential channel of communication with caregivers for a child, says San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Anderson, author of Nonverbal CommunicationL: Forms and Functions.

A mother’s touch enhances attachment between mother and child. It can signify security, and depending on the type of touch, it can generate positive or negative emotions. (Playing pat a cake makes infants happy while, a sudden squeeze from mom often signals a warning not to interact with a new object)

Mom’s touch even seems to mitigate pain when indants are given a blood test. University of Miamis School of Medicine’s Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research institute had linked touch, in the form of massage to a slew of benefits, including better sleep, reduced irritability and increased sociability among infants as well as improved growth of preemies.

We are never touched as much as when we are children, which is when our comfort level with phsyical contact, and with physical closeness in general (what scientists call proxemics), develops. Warm climates tend to produce cultures that are more liberal about touching than colder regions. There are a number of hypotheses as to why, including the fact that a higher ambient temperature increases the availability of skin (it pays to touch somebody if there is skin showing or they are wearing light clothing through which they can feel the touch)

The effect of sunlight on mood. The upper Midwest is heavily German and Scandinavian, which Spaniards and Italians went to Mexico and Brazil. That influences the brand of touch.

What goes on in your home also plays a role. Anderson notes that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types. Probably because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful. Tolerance for touch is not set in stone, however, spend tieme in a different culture or even with touchy-feely friends, and your attitudes toward touch can change.

By the time we are adults, most of us have learned that touching tends to raise the stakes, particularly when it comes to a sense of connectivity. Even fleeting contact with a stranger can have a measurabe effectm both fostering.



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