The Power of Touch Reply

Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship. Here’s how to regain fluency in your first language.

By Rick Chillot, Psychology Today

You’re in a crowded subway car on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on a city bus. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts.

A toddler in his stroller looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to Mom for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quietly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away—then back to Mom. She takes his hand again: squeeze and release.

A twenty-something in a skirt and blazer sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blonde wisps off her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.

A couple propped against a pole shares messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair.

A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with some elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.

Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”

But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. “I was surprised,” Hertenstein admits. “I thought the accuracy would be at chance level,” about 25 percent.

Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at comminicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. “Everywhere we’ve studied this, people seem able to do it,” he says.

Indeed, we appear to be wired to interpret the touch of our fellow humans. A study providing evidence of this ability was published in 2012 by a team who used fMRI scans to measure brain activation in people being touched. The subjects, all heterosexual males, were shown a video of a man or a woman who was purportedly touching them on the leg. Unsurprisingly, subjects rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex responded more sharply to a woman’s touch than to a man’s. But here’s the twist: The videos were fake. It was always a woman touching the subjects.

The results were startling, because the primary somatosensory cortex had been thought to encode only basic qualities of touch, such as smoothness or pressure. That its activity varied depending on whom subjects believed was touching them suggests that the emotional and social components of touch are all but inseparable from physical sensations. “When you’re being touched by another person, your brain isn’t set up to give you the objective qualities of that touch,” says study coauthor Michael Spezio, a psychologist at Scripps College. “The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you.”

Read the full article here:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

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