Do Touch

The benefits of skin on skin go deeper than feeling good


| March/April 1998


Years ago, when massages were called 'rubdowns' and masseuses offered a decidedly shady brand of wellness, I found myself in a seemingly endless state of the blahs. One day, after realizing that I had, to put it mildly, let myself go, I scheduled a haircut appointment.

As the stylist ran her fingers through my hair, I closed my eyes and focused on the light tickling sensation on my scalp. When she washed my hair, the circular motion of her thumbs pressing behind my ears made me relax in a way that I hadn't been able to do for months. As I left the salon, I noticed a sense of optimism creeping in between the gray moods.

That haircut was a revelation about the power of touch. But the idea of using touchóby someone who is neither parent nor loveróas a way to stay happy and healthy traditionally has not been accepted in mainstream America. Psychologist Sidney Jourard monitored casual touch among couples in cafÈs throughout the world and found that U.S. couples scored among the lowest, touching only twice per hour, while Puerto Rican couples touched 180(!) times. French parents and children touch one another three times more frequently than their American counterparts, which could have important societal consequences. Current research suggests children who are touched often are less violent as adolescents and adults.

Fortunately, American touchiness about touch is changing. As Ashley Montagu writes in his landmark book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (Harper & Row), 'The communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of experience.' Now that more and more scientific research is emerging about the emotional and physical benefits of massage therapy, 25 million Americans are making 60 million visits a year to bodywork practitioners. Consider these findings:

* Researchers at Miami's Touch Research Institute (TRI) found that premature infants who received three massages a day over 10 days gained 47 percent more weight than preemies who weren't massaged. According to Family Therapy Networker (Nov./Dec. 1997), TRI has also documented massage's benefits in treating everything from colic and bulimia to chronic fatigue syndrome and back pain. Massage also raises immune-system cell levels in people who are HIV-positive.

* According to Intuition (Nov./Dec. 1997), elderly people who receive massages 'exhibit less depression and less loneliness, make more social phone calls, visit the doctor less often, and drink less coffee than their counterparts who have no tactile stimulation. Nursing-home patients who get massages frequently display fewer signs of senility, and agitation decreases in Alzheimer's patients who are massaged.'

* Preliminary results of a University of South Carolina study found that women who had experienced the recent death of a child were less depressed after receiving therapeutic massage. In Natural Health (July/Aug. 1997), TRI's director, Tiffany Field, said that besides countering isolation, massage relaxes depressed people, slowing their physiological processes, reducing stress hormones, and making them feel better.