The Power of Touch

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

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY ANNE MULLENS

EV­ERY TWO OR THREE MONTHS, Thyago Ohana goes out on the busy streets of Vi­enna with a big smile and a sign say­ing, ‘Free Hugs’. The hand­some 32 year old, who works in in­ter­na­tional trade at In­dia’s em­bassy in Vi­enna, chooses a pop­u­lar lo­cale, such as the his­toric shop­ping street Kärnt­ner Strasse. There he opens his arms to any­one who wants a hearty em­brace.

He does it be­cause once, 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, get­ting a 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 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 is why I keep do­ing it.”

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.

“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 ex­pe­ri­ences of 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, their im­mune sys­tems did not de­velop prop­erly, nor did their di­ges­tive sys­tems.

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

Elsie Peña Tretvik 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 her for­mer 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

Spe­cial fi­bres trans­mit sen­sa­tions of touch, con­nect­ing us to oth­ers

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. “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 to do some gen­tle strokes.

It is 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 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 the Univer­sity of Gothen­burg 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 Olaus­son.

When the CT fi­bres don’t work prop­erly, it may un­der­mine mak­ing emo­tional con­nec­tions to oth­ers. ­Re­search last year led by neu­ro­sci­en­tist Francis McGlone, at Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity in Eng­land, 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 Olaus­son and ­another team of re­searchers found

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

that the pleas­ant­ness of touch re­mains and is even en­hanced with age.

Alas, as Thyago Ohana well 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 and other se­nior-ori­ented health ser­vices.

Dr Manuel Ar­roy­oMo­rales is a pro­fes­sor of phys­io­ther­apy at the Univer­sity of Granada in Spain, where re­searchers study the ef­fect of hands on the hu­man body. He and his team are par­tic­u­larly 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 have found that some of the out­comes de­pend on the at­ti­tude of the pa­tient to­wards touch and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ther­a­pist and pa­tient. It is the spe­cific type of mas­sage and the ‘con­sen­sual touch­ing re­la­tion­ship’ that pro­vide the key ben­e­fits, says Ar­royo-Mo­rales.

Joan­nie McCutcheon, 65, knows that first-hand. In 2005 she was liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam, work­ing in a multi­na­tional 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 are 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 headachy. 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 is al­ways just gor­geous and I come out feel­ing ev­ery­thing is OK again.”

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, 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.

Robey de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of a wo­man in her early 30s 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 and 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 quite re­as­sur­ing that it helped make her fi­nal hours more com­fort­able.”

So how do we get more lov­ing touch into our daily lives? For some, the an­swer is ‘ cud­dle par­ties’ – non­sex­ual three-plus-hour so­cial events in which par­tic­i­pants do just that : cud­dle.

The Ir­ish Cud­dle Sa­lon holds reg­u­lar cud­dle par­ties in Dublin. Wendy Stephens, 33, heard about it from a friend. As a sin­gle wo­man, Wendy 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 im­proved her sleep and ap­petite and de­creased feel­ings of lone­li­ness, mak­ing her more com­fort­able within her­self.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist David Lin­den says how­ever you do it, work­ing within cul­tural ideas and rules, “max­imis­ing touch in your life is a good thing” – whether it is a ther­a­peu­tic mas­sage, hold­ing hands, pat­ting a dog or cat, 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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