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How Touch Deprivation Is Killing Us (5 Evidence-Based Truths)

Updated: Feb 7

“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”

― Honoré de Balzac

In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Romanian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu enacted Decree 77, which banned abortions and restricted contraceptives. His skewed vision was to increase the population and improve industrial progress. The birth rate soared by thirteen percent in one year, and the infant population exploded. It left about 150,000 infants in state-run institutions that were unable to care for so many children. In one of the most heartbreaking stories in history, the babies were left crying in cribs, with only one nurse in charge of as many as twenty-five children. The infants often experienced severe sensory deprivation in what should have been their most important months.

Touch Starved

In early 2000, scientists from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Maryland began a study of one hundred and thirty-six Romanian children abandoned either in foster care or in government-run orphanages. Their goal was to investigate what kind of impact sensory deprivation—specifically of touch—had on children (and of course its effects on humans in general).

The results were horrific. Denied sensory stimulation, the children ceased producing growth hormones and had diminished IQ. Most of the children were cross-eyed because they had nothing to observe and focus on, so the eye muscles did not develop. When the infants were moved and received proper sensory stimulation (for example, being held), they almost fully recovered.

Sensory (touch) deprivation is as real today as ever, and it includes adults as well as children. During our current crisis, people are more isolated than at any other time in human history. Humans are wired to be touched, especially when we are lonely and anxious. Without it, our health begins to suffer. Here are five science-based truths about how powerful human touch is.

1. The Midas Touch Study

An interesting study involving waitresses and tips demonstrated that customers gave larger tips when they were lightly touched by the waitress. The simple study examined the effects of two types of touch in a monitored setting of a restaurant. When the waitress returned the customer’s change, she lightly touched a hand or shoulder. The tips were larger in the customers that were touched. This exemplifies the power of non-sexual human touch, and why we need it, even in its most basic form. Like the infants who were touch-deprived during Decree 77, this can be traced back to mothers, who in early life nourished their infants by holding, hugging, and speaking to them. We crave and need touch as adults, too.

2. Hugs Help Buffer Stress And Strengthen The Immune System

A study that was published in Psychological Science and led by Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen, examined if social support helped reduce stress in humans. While other sites offer much more definitive information on the nature of stress, the research showed that the more people experienced social conflict, the more at risk they were for illness. Social support helps to eliminate susceptibility to common diseases. Hugs that are at least twenty seconds long are a prime component of that support and even reduce symptoms in people already infected with a cold. Allowing someone to hug you conveys non-verbal support and increasing the frequency of hugs is an effective way of reducing the effects of stress. The protective effect of hugs, the research showed, comes from the physical contact itself. Those who receive more hugs are more protected from illness. At the University of Vienna, researchers found that oxytocin is released in the body during a hug. Known as the “love drug,” oxytocin is produced in mother’s milk to give babies comfort. It’s also a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of social connection, emotional bonding, and decreased anxiousness. It helps reduce blood pressure, lower anxiety, improve memory and is a stress reliever.

3. Touch Improves Human Relationships

Families use touch extensively, and it helps deepen relationships powerfully. In the 1950s, there was a belief system that you didn’t hug your kids because it was considered socially unacceptable. The mindset was that kids don’t need to be coddled. Even today, many fathers are reluctant to hug their sons because of how they will be perceived. The truth is, males need hugs, too, but most are afraid to admit, or even afraid of receiving a hug from another male. A 2011 study by the Kinsey Institute surveyed one thousand men and their female partners on hugs and found that men thought it was more important than sex. Touch increases bonding (through oxytocin) with those around us, and it deepens the emotional connection.

4. Pain Reduction

New research at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder explores the concept of touch as it relates to interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain. The study confirmed previous research that demonstrated that couples synchronize physiologically just by being present with each other. When the woman was subjected to pain and the partner did not touch her, that physiological connection was lost. When the male partner held her hand, heart rates and respiration soared. Also, empathy in the male partner spiked when holding hands. The study showed that the more physiologically synced we are, the more our pain diminishes. Touch is involved in interpersonal synchronization, and it increases physiological connections whether there is pain or not.

5. Touch Makes Us Healthier And Happier

Touch affects our overall health and the health of our relationships. With the release of oxytocin and the stronger physiological connections, our immune systems are super-charged, and we are better able to fight off disease. Our moods are altered, so we are happier humans. The evidence suggests that incorporating regular touch into relationships is linked to a stronger bond between couples. Touch facilitates relationships, even if it’s just a hug. As Patch Adams said, “The consequence of a hug could save a life. I’ve seen it happen.”

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