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The Power of Touch

The Power of Touch

The NY Times ran an article describing a field of scientific study dealing with developing the sense of touch in robotics, (Giving Robotics a Human Touch, John Markoff). This could have major implications in the medical field both in preforming direct medical procedures and in training surgeons to practice using haptic perception for virtual reality and remote sensing. Not to mention improving touch sensitive products like phones and touch pads.

Replicating human touch turns out to be a much more complex undertaking than it initially appeared.

“Touch is a much more complicated sense than one might think. Humans have an array of organs that allow them to sense pressure, sheer force, temperature and vibrations with remarkable precision” says Ken Goldberg a roboticist at the University of California, Berkeley. To further make the point several scientist from Sweden recently reported that when a finger slides across a surface it could distinguish ridges no higher than 0.0000005 of an inch. This is accomplished by mechanoreceptors embedded at different depths in our skin that are sensitive to an objects size, shape and vibration.

Matthew Hertenstein from the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University has been involved in research that demonstrates touch may communicate distinct emotions. Pairs of participants would sit at a table with a curtain between them, so they were unable to see or talk to each other. One participant was asked to communicate distinct emotions (i.e. anger, fear, disgust, sympathy) by touching the other person’s arm. The person being touched was asked to identify the communicated emotion from a number of response options. The participants were able to decode distinct emotions at above chance levels.

There are various studies on the effects of interpersonal touch on courtship behavior. Nicholas Gueguen a social psychologist has been involved in several studies demonstrating that touch increases compliance with a request. One experiment involved a man asking a woman to dance. For one group he would lightly touch the women on their forearm while making the request and the second group would receive the same invitation without the touch. While 43% of women asked to dance complied 65% of women who received the light touch accepted the invitation to dance. Other research has clearly shown the social benefits of interpersonal touch are only likely to appear in “appropriate situations”.

“Kangaroo Care” now a common practice in Neonatal Intensive Care Units was first suggested by two neonatologists in Bogota Colombia. The doctors encountered a shortage of incubators. They sent mothers home with instructions to hold their infants bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position. The more skin to skin contact the better. This practice was so beneficial that today in the NICU mothers and fathers are supported and encouraged to Kangaroo with their preemies, removing them from their incubators for a period of time to be held with skin-to-skin contact. On a physiological level skin contact with a newborn sets off hormones that have health benefits and help regulate body temperature. A mother’s touch can lower the stress hormone cortisol and increase oxytocin, which is commonly described as the “bonding hormone”. On a physiological level the act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of oxytocin — both in yourself and in the person you’re touching. Hertenstein states, “This hormone (oxytocin) lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to others”.

Interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. Our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses. Touch leads to positive outcomes in health, development, emotions and relations. Concerning infants and children, touch has been shown to improve depression and enhance intellectual development. Touching and holding infants is associated with weight gain, attention skills, emotional regulatory capacities, and attachment security. In adults touch during painful situations has shown to reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce pain ratings. Therapeutic touch decrees perceived anxiety. Touch is positively associated with life satisfaction, self-confidence and negative affect. Greater frequency of physical affection is associated with greater marital and relationship satisfaction.

Interpersonal touch is becoming less common due in part to evolving cultural values and ironically the ongoing development of technology, which has intensified interest in attempting to replicate human touch. Millions of years of evolution have created a vastly complex and intricate sense that technology is not likely to replicate anytime soon.

In the meantime take a moment to give someone you care about a hug, you can’t go wrong.