If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are you have had the pleasure of using public transportation to get around. Buses or trains, or both, and the many others who accompany you in the journey to and from destinations. In these modes of transport, rush hour can get harrowing; packed like a can of sardines until it wouldn’t even matter if you had a bar to hold on to to maintain your balance. The sheer volume of people in your personal space is enough to keep you stuck wherever you are sitting or standing.
And if this is most human touch you experience per day, that may not be enough. Reason: our brains are wired to be touched.
University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute in early 2014 had done extensive research in the area of human touch.Their results have revealed that human touch has wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits for people of all age groups. In the Institute’s studies, they discovered touch lessened pain, improved pulmonary function, increased growth in infants, lowered blood glucose and improved immune function. Human touch is extremely important for all ages, but by the time children reach their teen years, they receive only half as much touching as they did when they were infants. Adults touch each other even less.
The researchers in Miami also found that touch with moderate pressure stimulates the vagus nerve which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. This produces a state that is relaxed, less closed off, but more attentive. Even the Institute’s medical staff and students that received massages for 15 minutes a day over the course of a month were more accurate and took less time on math performance tests than their counterparts who did not receive massages, more proof that touch also decreases stress hormone function and boosts immune systems.
It is then no surprise to learn of evidence pointing to the levels of aggression and violence among children is related to lack of touching.
Touch Research Institute conducted two separate studies, one with French children and one with American children to determine the degree of touch they received from their parents in relation to displays of aggression. The researchers found that French children received more touching from parents and their peers and were less aggressive than their American counterparts. American children on the contrary had less physical interaction with their parents and tended to touch themselves more than they touched their peers (e.g. playing with hair).
And in 2009, DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein studied the person’s ability to interpret emotional content via other non-verbal means with the sensory cortex. Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch, of which many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”
The result? They did touch, all for the benefit of science after all. The results suggest that for all our Pre-Frontal Cortex caution about touching, we are hard-wired with the capacity to send and receive emotional signals solely by touching, one of our sensory systems. Herenstein was surprised at the results, thinking that the results were going to be at a chance level of 25 percent. Instead, participants were able to clearly identify and communicate eight distinct emotions (anger, fear, disgust, love,gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness) all with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent.
Even for those who suffer from seizures can benefit from therapeutic touch. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) such as combining Acupuncture and Massage Therapy have been found to reduce seizures. Results from studies in China and Germany as per the College of Oriental Medicine have also proven to control abnormal brain activity that causes the seizures.
For the rest of us, average touch is relative. There is debate as to how many hugs one is required to receive per day to stay emotionally and mentally healthy — a range from 8-11 per day. And that is something we can all aim for, in spite of the speed we travel, the inconvenience of daily living, and the noise all around us.
Let’s have the animals teach us how it’s really done.
The University of Florida recently suggested that animals really wanted human contact after all. Lindsay Mehrkam, a University of Florida doctoral student in psychology with psychology professor Nicole Dorey have published a paper in the journal Zoo Biology that examined different types of enrichment preferences specifically in zoo-housed animals.
For this study, the pair chose three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida named Larry, Moe and Curly. They were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these amenities at least twice a month for several years at the zoo.
The inanimate object and the human were placed on opposite sides of the enclosure while the tortoises were released from the barn and had five minutes to make a choice. Consistently, they chose their human companion over the object!
Mehrkam said, “Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment, but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing.”
With the invention of instantaneous answers through the swipe of a finger, a press of a button and a question, “Hey Siri… or “Hey Cortana… Who was the the little kid actor in The Never Ending Story?” or “What is happiness?” The act of thinking seems to take a backseat to the final destination of an answer. During this digital age, delayed gratification or the desire to experience the satisfaction of recollection has essentially been lost. While quickly seeking answers to simple questions may not be the beginning of the end, it seems plausible that electronic ‘personal assistants’ who refer to their owners as BFFs (yet can’t define it) will be answering questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the difference between right and wrong?” in a non-ironic way.
Examples of consciousness happen nearly everyday, from the person who holds the door open for a stranger or gives up their seat on a crowded train to the thousands of people who protest for justice. The brain is an organ that can be worked out like a muscle and retrained to fall out of unhealthy habits like going to bed too late and into new ones like waking up early to work out. But what is consciousness? To date, neuroscientists are still seeking to answer this question with little definitive results. Can it be programmed?
No, not yet anyway. Abstract thought coupled with spontaneous, altruistic action still belong to those with a beating heart and a conscious mind. But perhaps it is time to put down the phone, still the fingers and stop and think or ask a friend, rather then Siri, Google or Cortana, for the best restaurant in the city or the name of the song that played at the end of Princess Bride. Perhaps a few seconds or minutes will be lost waiting for an answer, but connection–with another conscious–will be gained. Because, even though Siri often says it’s not about her. It’s not because she is being a BFF; it’s because there is no ‘conscious’ her. The conscious are the quiet girl at the coffee shop; the happy go lucky child on the swing, the misunderstood homeless man on the subway train or the real BFF who sometimes needs it to be about her as much as it isn’t. It is time for people to look up, open their mouths and speak. It may even be surprising what consciousness has to say.