We can’t afford to lose faith in human touch

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Article Date: 
Feb 24 2013, 2008

Touch is one of the nicest human expressions, and is important in nearly every relationship. A supportive touch from a teacher makes a big difference to students. A sympathetic touch not only eases pain, but also soothes depression and strengthens a relationship. Touch has been shown to lessen pain. It has even shown to improve immune function. Touch is a medium of social exchange. It helps to form strong attachments and cooperative alliances. Touch often is an indicator of social difference. It is a “highly gendered form of human communication”, and expresses romantic interest.
We have emotions. Our emotions have various forms and can cause varied responses. The response can be physiological (for example, increase in heart rate), behavioural (for example, to run away or come closer), or subjective (for example, feeing happy, or sad). Touch can be worth a thousand words, and the fleeting physical contact can express specific emotions, say the researchers. Certain kind of touch conveys specific emotion, the researchers say. Fear, for example, can be expressed by holding and squeezing with no movement, while sympathy requires holding, patting and rubbing. Says a touch researcher about its power, “Most touches were only about five seconds, but in these fleeting moments, we’re capable of communicating distinct emotions, just as we are with the face. This is a sophisticated differential signalling system that we haven’t previously known about.”
The neuroscientists of California Institute of Technology have reported a relationship between touch and emotion via the brain’s primary somatosensory cortex, the brain region that encodes basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is. When we get touched by someone, we first perceive the physical properties of the touch, such as its speed, its gentleness, and the roughness of the skin. “Only thereafter, in a separable second step based on who touched us, do we believe we value this touch more or less.” The Caltech researchers say that emotion is involved even at the primary stages of social touch. The researchers of the University of Chicago say that the timing and frequency of vibrations produced in the skin when you run your hands along a surface play an important role in how we use our sense of touch to gather information about the objects and surfaces around us. As the frequency of vibrations on the eardrum conveys information about sound, the researchers say, that the precise timing and frequency of these neural responses convey specific messages about texture to the brain.
Our perception is shaped by how we feel about the things we perceive. The researchers hope that their work can help reconfigure social responses to touch for people diagnosed with autism. One of their findings (that gentle touch leads to more positive reception) can be used to develop methods to assist victims of physical and sexual abuse or torture. “Now that we have clear evidence that primary somatosensory cortex encodes emotional significance of touch, it may be possible to work with early sensory pathways to help children with autism respond more positively to the gentle touch of their parents and siblings,” believe the Caltech researchers. Too often, we underestimate the power of a touch. We are not simply machines, and we can’t afford to lose faith in human touch. Touch a lonely heart with a tender hand and you will know what a wonderful feeling touch conveys.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)