The sur­pris­ing sci­ence be­hind the sense that we of­ten take for granted—yet can­not do with­out


JOAN­NIE McCUTCHEON has a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ben­e­fits of touch. In 2005, the 66-year-old was liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam and work­ing at a multi­na­tional com­pany as an IT spe­cial­ist when she was di­ag­nosed with two brain tu­mours. One was a be­nign menin­gioma and the other a po­ten­tially fa­tal oligo­den­droglioma. She named them Me­lanie and Ol­lie.

McCutcheon had surgery to re­move part of the can­cer­ous tumour, which saved her life but didn’t leave her com­pletely can­cer-free. A cou­ple years later, she moved back home to Scot­land. Then, in 2015, she be­came a vol­un­teer with the Iris Can­cer Part­ner­ship, a char­ity that of­fers free mas­sages by spe­cially trained ther­a­pists to can­cer pa­tients. McCutcheon pro­vides IT sup­port to the or­ga­ni­za­tion and, in re­turn, re­ceives a mas­sage ev­ery three weeks from ther­a­pist and now friend An­gela Sec­re­tan.

“I go in feel­ing ex­hausted and headachy,” says McCutcheon. “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. I come out feel­ing ev­ery­thing is okay again.” McCutcheon says the reg­u­lar mas­sages, as well as the new com­pan­ion­ship the ther­apy has brought her, have kept her alive.

In Canada, pro­grams like Touch for Can­cer in Bal­go­nie, Sask., per­form a func­tion sim­i­lar to that of Iris’s pro­vid­ing, among other things, gen­tle touch to can­cer pa­tients in or­der to re­duce swelling and pain in the hands and feet.

Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent re­search, these pro­grams make sense. Manuel Ar­royo-Mo­rales, a pro­fes­sor of phys­io­ther­apy at the Univer­sity of Granada in Spain, leads stud­ies look­ing into the ef­fect of hands on the hu­man body—par­tic­u­larly the im­pact of mas­sage ther­a­pies on can­cer pa­tients. When touch is con­sen­sual and comes from a per­son with whom the pa­tient is com­fort­able, says Ar­royo-Mo­rales, it helps to re­duce pain and fa­tigue, strength­ens the im­mune sys­tem and low­ers anx­i­ety. His team’s find­ings are re­in­forced by an in­creas­ing num­ber of sci­en­tists who’ve come to the same con­clu­sion: phys­i­cal con­tact can greatly im­prove our emo­tional and phys­i­cal health.

OF OUR FIVE SENSES, touch is of­ten the one we take for granted. Sci­ence has only be­gun to un­der­stand the highly com­plex sys­tem of nerves, sen­sors and re­cep­tors that link our skin and brain to our en­vi­ron­ment and the peo­ple around us.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about touch sen­sa­tions,” says David J. Lin­den, a pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and the au­thor of 2015’s

Touch: The Sci­ence of Hand, Heart, and Mind. What we do know, he says, is that there are sep­a­rate sen­sors for tex­ture, vi­bra­tion, pres­sure and itch.

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, which are re­spon­si­ble for reg­is­ter­ing and trans­mit­ting to the brain the emo­tional mean­ing of gen­tle 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 but also re­spond to many other types of touch, such as press­ing on the skin,” Olaus­son says.

When the CT fi­bres aren’t work­ing prop­erly, a gen­tle touch in­stead feels aver­sive and can un­der­mine at­tempts to form emo­tional con­nec­tions to oth­ers, says Fran­cis McGlone, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity in Eng­land. CT stim­u­la­tion, when de­liv­ered through nur­tur­ing touch, im­pacts the neu­ral net­works in our brains that al­low us to see our­selves as sep­a­rate be­ings with needs that are dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. With­out this abil­ity, in­di­vid­u­als may be un­able to read emo­tional cues, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for them to em­pathize. Re­search last year, led by McGlone, found that chil­dren on the autism spec­trum may have a dif­fer­ence in the func­tion­ing of their CT fi­bres that causes them to find soft touch from oth­ers un­pleas­ant.

For in­di­vid­u­als whose CT fi­bres func­tion nor­mally, how­ever, touch can bring a great amount of ben­e­fit, McGlone says. Gen­tle con­tact can re­in­force so­cial re­la­tion­ships,

Ba­bies who are held skin-to-skin im­me­di­ately af­ter birth have stronger im­mune sys­tems and cry less.

com­mu­ni­cate pos­i­tive feel­ings, and even make us more ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with stress.

OUR NEED FOR TOUCH kicks in the mo­ment we’re born. Over the past 15 years, mul­ti­ple stud­ies have shown that ba­bies who are held skin-to-skin im­me­di­ately af­ter birth show more sta­ble breath­ing and body tem­per­a­tures than those who are sep­a­rated from their moth­ers. They also de­velop stronger im­mune sys­tems and cry less, which could in­di­cate they feel lower lev­els of stress. Moth­ers ben­e­fit equally: those who hold

their new­borns af­ter birth re­port more con­fi­dence in car­ing for their in­fants and breast­feed longer.

Over time, in­fants who re­ceive lov­ing touch early on are more ca­pa­ble of self-reg­u­lat­ing their emo­tions than those who are de­prived of sen­sory stim­u­la­tion af­ter birth.

Re­searchers even en­cour­age the reg­u­lar stroking and hold­ing of pre­ma­ture in­fants through spe­cial port­holes in in­cu­ba­tors. A 2010 pa­per pub­lished in In­fant Be­hav­ior & De­vel­op­ment found that pre-term ba­bies who re­ceived mas­sage ther­apy gained more weight and had in­creased bone den­sity, which was associated with shorter hos­pi­tal stays.

In the neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit, an in­fant’s tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ences are largely stress­ful and un­com­fort­able, which may lead them to be averse to touch as they age. Pro­vid­ing com­fort­ing sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences, how­ever, can help these new­borns more read­ily ac­cept lov­ing con­tact.

The un­der­stand­ing that ba­bies thrive when they re­ceive touch has con­trib­uted to a rise in the pop­u­lar­ity of in­fant mas­sage and classes teach­ing par­ents the prac­tice.

Elsie Peña Tretvik, of Molde, Nor­way, sought out such a class be­cause she wanted to com­fort and bond with her col­icky in­fant daugh­ter, Maya. By the time Maya was three months old, she was cry­ing for up to three hours each even­ing.

One of Peña Tretvik’s old friends, Paola Ro­dríguez, hap­pened to be the CEO of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of In­fant Mas­sage—an or­ga­ni­za­tion with more than 30 in­ter­na­tional chap­ters—which pro­vides in­struc­tion to par­ents and care­givers. When Peña Tretvik con­tacted her look­ing for help, Ro­dríguez sug­gested her friend take one of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s five-day cour­ses.

The classes trans­formed Peña Tretvik’s re­la­tion­ship with her daugh­ter. “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.” Peña Tretvik de­cided to be­come cer­ti­fied as a teacher of in­fant mas­sage and now of­fers the course to par­ents in Molde. “The ben­e­fits are huge,” she says. Hav­ing re­cently given birth to her sec­ond child, she will teach Maya, now three, how to help mas­sage her sis­ter.

AS WE AGE, our sense of touch be­comes less sen­si­tive. On the other hand, a 2016 study con­ducted by Olaus­son and a team of re­searchers found that the pleas­ant­ness of touch is en­hanced with age. When sub­jects rang­ing in age from 13 to 82 were ex­posed to gen­tle, stroking touch, re­searchers found that the older par­tic­i­pants were, the more they per­ceived the con­tact as en­joy­able.

Fur­ther­more, re­search has clearly shown the ben­e­fits of touch for the

el­derly. A 2007 study out of the Univer­sity of South Carolina, for ex­am­ple, found that adults age 60 and older who re­ceived two mas­sage ther­apy ses­sions a week ex­pe­ri­enced lower lev­els of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Other stud­ies on older re­cip­i­ents have demon­strated that mas­sage can re­duce in­som­nia and chronic pain. Still, Lin­den says, touch ther­a­pies haven’t yet been ap­plied widely in care homes and other se­nioror­i­ented health ser­vices.

As well as im­prov­ing our qual­ity of life, the emo­tional con­nec­tion found in ther­a­peu­tic touch—such as mas­sage, acupunc­ture and re­flex­ol­ogy—can also have a pro­found ef­fect at life’s end, says Si­mon Robey, the co­or­di­na­tor of com­ple­men­tary ther­a­pies and the in­terim head of supportive care for St. Joseph’s Hos­pice, in east Lon­don, U.K. As part of its care, the hos­pice pro­vides touch ther­a­pies free of charge—not only to their dy­ing pa­tients, but to their loved ones and fam­i­lies, who are all un­der tremen­dous stress.

Robey de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of a young woman in her early 30s who was hours away from death. Her family was supportive, stay­ing by her bed­side day and night, but the ther­a­pist of­fered ad­di­tional relief, mas­sag­ing the dy­ing woman’s hands, legs and feet. “She was drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness... but ev­ery­one no­ticed she be­came re­mark­ably more re­laxed; she re­ally re­sponded to touch,” he says. “For the family, there was some­thing quite re­as­sur­ing that it helped make her fi­nal hours more com­fort­able.”

EVEN ONCE WE’RE AWARE of the im­por­tance of lov­ing touch, the ques­tion re­mains: How do we fit more of it into our day-to-day lives?

One easy way is to adopt a pet. Stroking a four-legged friend pro­duces oxy­tocin, a chem­i­cal in the brain that plays an im­por­tant role in help­ing us to feel calm, re­laxed and trust­ing. Wher­ever you find it, whether it is a ther­a­peu­tic mas­sage, hold­ing hands, go­ing to the hair­dresser, hug­ging our kids, our part­ners or even a stranger, says Lin­den, “Max­i­miz­ing touch in your life is a good thing.”

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