That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life

Interpersonal touch is a fundamental but undervalued aspect of human nature. In the present article, the authors review psychological research showing that even fleeting forms of touch may have a powerful impact on our emotional and social functioning. Given its significant beneficial effects, touch may be valuable as a therapeutic or health-promoting tool.

No one wants to live alone
Who wants to smile, laugh, or cry alone
Have we lost the touch that means so much
Have we lost the human touch

From Human Touch, performed by Nina Simone 
(written by Charles Reuben)

Ever had cold feet at night? People had a remarkable solution to this problem in the Middle Ages. Many nobles in medieval Europe had large beds that allowed a noble, his wife, their children, some servants, and his knights to sleep together in the dead of winter (Lacroix & Naunton, 2010). If this sleeping arrangement sounds a little too cozy, this is probably because modern people like you and I have come to regard the practice of sleeping together with one’s entire household as shameful and uncivilized. Indeed, over the centuries, various forms of interpersonal touch have become less and less common, squelched under an onslaught of changing cultural values and new technology. We increasingly view touch as unhygienic and even invasive, as in the case of sexual harassment, for example. And sequestering ourselves behind phones and laptop screens has only exacerbated the trend.

Given that interpersonal touch is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity, it is important to ask how touch influences our lives. Why is touching and being touched by others so important to us? New research suggests that even fleeting forms of touch may have a powerful impact on our emotional and social functioning. For instance, people can communicate distinct emotions such as anger or sadness through touch. Moreover, people who are touched briefly on the arm or shoulder are more likely to comply with requests such as volunteering for charity activities. These findings could have far-ranging implications for the role of touch in everyday life and point to important applications in therapy and virtual communication.

The Emotional Power of Touch

Whether we get a friendly slap on the back, a sensual caress, or a loving kiss --interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. In fact, our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses, through stimulation of erogenous zones or nerve endings that respond to pain (Auvray, Myin, & Spence, 2010; Hertenstein & Campos, 2001). Furthermore, research by Matthew Hertenstein, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, has shown that touch may communicate distinct emotions (Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, & Jaskolka, 2006). Hertenstein and his associates asked pairs of participants to sit at a table with a curtain between them, so that they were unable to see one another. One of the participants, the encoder, was asked to communicate distinct emotions (e.g. anger, disgust, fear, sympathy) by touching the other person’s arm. The person being touched, the decoder, was asked to identify the communicated emotion from a number of response options. Although they could neither see nor talk to each other, the participants were able to encode and decode distinct emotions such as anger, fear and disgust at above-chance levels.

The emotional impact of interpersonal touch is ingrained in our biology. Indeed, there is some direct evidence that, in mammalian species, touch triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that decreases stress-related responses. Researchers first tested this idea by stroking rats’ abdomens for 30-45 seconds. They found that this type of soft touch raised rats’ oxytocin levels (Ågren, Lundeberg, Uvnäs-Moberg, & Sato, 1995). Interpersonal touch can also induce oxytocin release among humans. For instance, in one experiment, couples who engaged in a warm touch exercise, during which they touched each other's neck, shoulders, and hands, had more oxytocin in their saliva than couples who did not engage in this exercise (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, & Light, 2008). Likewise, women who report frequent partner hugs display higher levels of oxytocin in their blood than women who report few partner hugs (Light, Grewen, & Amico, 2005). The oxytocin-enhancing effects of touch may reduce the discomfort that people experience from everyday stressors, such as family turmoil or conflict at work (Di Simplicio, Massey-Chase, Cowen, & Harmer, 2009; Taylor, 2006).