Our world is rapidly becoming devoid of human touch. With scattered families, online shopping, ATMs, Facebook and instant messaging, these days there’s a whole lot less opportunity to reach out and touch someone.
But researchers have shown the power of human touch can help babies stay healthier and sleep better. It improves cooperation in troublesome teens, reduces aggression, and helps with pain and nausea in cancer sufferers.
From tickles to tussles, and hugs to high fives, the power of human touch can lift your spirits, promote wellness and even make you smarter.
It can boost your brainpower
Want to increase your smarts? American researchers, led by the University of Miami School of Medicine, have shown the stimulus of touch gives your brain a workout. Adults given a chair massage showed increased alertness, and higher maths scores when quizzed, than those who simply sat in a chair.
French researcher Dr Nicolas Guéguen has also shown students who were given a light pat on the back by their teacher were far more likely to contribute in class.
It can make your heart healthy
A hug can often be more effective than words if someone is upset. Hugging those you love can lower their blood pressure. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in the US found women who reported frequent hugs by their partners had lower blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin, a relaxant and human bonding hormone.
It can lift your sports performance
If you like playing team sports, a little bonding with your buddies can improve your game. Sydney sports psychologist Jacqui Louder says that during a game, slaps on the back or a hug help to build camaraderie. “Players feel more supported by other team members; it keeps them motivated and committed to the game,” she says.
In a 2009 study by the University of California, 294 NBL basketball players were coded to see how much they touched teammates during a game. Those belonging to teams who bumped fists and high fived teammates won more games.
It can warm your heart
Holding a warm or chilly drink can influence your feelings towards others. A 2008 Yale University study found people think more warmly and favourably of other people if they are touching something warm.
Melbourne psychologist Meredith Fuller says touch is important for your emotional and physical health. “If you are touched by people you feel safe and comfortable with, this soothing effect creates a calming response, and makes you feel safe.”
This is backed up by a US experiment that found women who held their husbands’ hands experienced decreased threat-related brain activity when told they would be receiving an electric shock than those who held the hand of a stranger.
It can make you happy
A gentle massage helps muscles unclench, lowers the heart rate and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When you are feeling relaxed, serotonin – the body’s feel-good chemical – increases, making you feel happier.
Touch establishes a relaxation response in the body, says Jane Hall, president of the Therapeutic Touch Association of Australasia. “Touch someone lovingly, with care, focus and intent, and it reduces anxiety, lessens the experience of pain, and promotes a healing response,” she says.
It can banish the blues
Feeling down? Time to get a little touch therapy. A 2009 study by Tiffany Field and colleagues from the Touch Institute in Miami, looking at pregnant women with depression, found massage therapy decreased depression and anxiety and reduced cortisol levels.
Turning up the tactile also benefits the giver. Another study found elderly volunteers who massaged babies had less anxiety and depression and lower stress hormone levels.
It can help your head
If you suffer from tension headaches or migraines, a gentle massage with pain-reducing essential oils (for example, one drop of peppermint mixed with four drops of lavender) added to your favourite body lotion or a basic massage oil can lessen the severity, says Maria Mitchell, an aromatic and herbal medicine practitioner.
Dab the mixture on the shoulders, base of the skull and temples and massage using a gentle circular motion.