Touch Empowers Both Giver and Receiver
By Rebecca Strom
Our experience as a member of the human race begins with our perception of self and of everything around us through our senses. The sense of touch is the first sense to develop as the fetus begins to use this ability to sense the environment inside the womb; the motherʼs heartbeat is felt before it is heard. After birth, touch is the main way the infant learns about our world and bonds with other people.
According to neuroscientist David J. Linden in his book Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind, “A child can be born blind or deaf and they will grow up just fine, with no cognitive impairments, yet if an infant is deprived of loving social touch for the first two years of life, then all sorts of disasters unfold.” Kirsten Weir from the American Psychological Association wrote a piece back in 2014 about the research done on thousands of children aged newborn to 5 years old who grew up in Romanian orphanages in the 80ʼs. These children had experienced severe sensory deprivation in these understaffed institutions. It was reported that babies laid in their cribs all day and were fed, bathed and diapered on a schedule, but were not rocked or cuddled. Many of them were found to have stunted growth and a range of delayed cognitive function, motor development and language. They showed deficits in socio-emotional behaviors and experienced more psychiatric disorders. They also showed changes in the patterns of electrical activity in their brains, as measured by EEG. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/06/neglect.aspx
It isn’t only the young who need compassionate touch. In one series of studies conducted by Tiffany Fields of the Touch Research Institute at University of Miamiʼs Miller School of Medicine, one group of elderly participants received regular, conversation-filled social time while another group received regular social time that also included massage; the second group saw emotional and cognitive benefits over and above those of the first. It appears that touch stimulates our bodies and minds to react in very positive ways. Massage and other kinds of touch can reduce muscle tension, pain and stiffness, improve joint mobility, relieve tension headaches, reduce anxiety, improve sleep and digestion, lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels, stimulate the memory centers of the brain, and cause the release of a host of hormones and neuropeptides that are linked to positive emotions. http://www6.miami.edu/touch-research/
The benefits of touch are not limited to only the recipient. Research being conducted on altruism has shown some positive psychological and physiological effects on the givers of touch. One study documented in the Journal of Applied Gerontology showed that older adults who participated in giving massage to infants had measurably lower levels of stress hormones, including salivary cortisol and plasma norepinephrine and epinephrine post massage sessions.
While my work doing therapeutic massage can be physically demanding, above all else, it is an absolute privilege. During each session I am intently focused on my client; their goals for the session, their breath, their muscles and other connective tissues, and their response to my presence and intervention. Anything else going on in my life just falls away, and for those few moments, nothing else exists. I am truly humbled and always amazed by my clientʼs trust. It turns out, you canʼt touch without being touched, and I am eternally grateful.
 Field, M. F., Hernandez-Reif, M., Quintino, O., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn C. (1998). Elder retired volunteers benefit from giving message therapy to infants. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 17,