Brain Science – Episode #22
The Neuroscience of touch
the social glue that binds us together
How much do you focus on your sense of touch? Have you ever considered how or why this sense is so critical to our lives and how we manage ourselves? In this episode, Mireille and Adam discuss the neurophysiological underpinnings of our sense of touch and how our brains process these sensory experiences. According to David Linden, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “The sense of touch is intrinsically emotional.”
Not only is touch relevant to our emotional experience, but it is a foundational aspect of the development of our nervous system and it impacts how we manage stress and respond to pain. It isn’t surprising then to consider that touch is also extremely relevant to our relationships as we are apt to feel more connected to those with whom we engage in touch.
Notes & Links
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Adam, do you know what our largest organ is?
I believe it’s my heart, because I’ve got a big heart.
[laughs] Good thinking.
But I’m wrong. I know I’m wrong.
I know you know. Because it’s what?
It’s our skin.
Our skin, you are correct! So I’m excited about today’s conversation, because we are all familiar with the senses - see, smell, touch, taste and hear, and I want to focus our attention on the notion of touch, or the sense of touch. Some would say “To feel is to be human”, and ironically, to touch is to feel. Interesting.
Yes. Well, if we think about connection too, and attachment, and all these things… Imagine if you never were touched as a baby, or you never touched your baby, or you never embraced your father or mother, or aunts or uncles, or whatever - how deeply would you attach to them? How deeply would you care for them? Probably a lot less, because – we’re not gonna examine what touch does, but attachment and emotion is a huge component of touch.
Yeah, you’re spot on. We’ve talked about this in other episodes, but you are alluding to the research that I’ve talked about before relative to children in orphanages in Romania, wherein these infants had significant developmental delays and challenges if they were deprived of touch, which is what contributed to changes in how we care for infants… Because what they’ve found is that when infants were not touched during this time period, kids developed poor emotional control or coping, they had gastro-intestinal problems, impaired cognitive development… There was a number of sequelae related to just not being touched, and that ironically then they brought in volunteers to come in and practice holding and touching and caressing in very adaptive ways… It totally changed the developmental trajectory of these kids, so long as these interventions were incorporated prior to the age of two.
[03:54] Hm… It’s a two-way street though too, the studies of the orphans… I’m thinking of the people who held these children. It’s a two-way street really, right?
Yeah, it’s interesting, because I talk about volunteering or doing acts of service when I work with people in mental health, of going “What could you do?” So I’ve heard, I haven’t looked into it, but there’s like an extensive waiting list to go and hold the babies in the [unintelligible 00:04:19.20]
Absolutely. That’s what I was thinking of… Like, there’s these volunteers who – now, I actually saw this on a show; the show is called Dead To Me, I think it’s on Netflix. If you’ve seen that show – I’m not gonna give you plot twists or spoilers here, but in season two one of the women goes to the hospital and for some reason she’s watching this other woman loving this baby, and she’s like “Oh, I love your baby”, and she’s like “Oh, that’s not my baby. I volunteer as a baby holder”, or whatever the term for it was… But essentially, there’s a volunteer team who volunteers to come and love these babies. They’ll just hold the baby for a little bit, give them love… And there’s a give and take though. The baby receives, and so does the person.
Yup. So this is why I think it’s so important for us to talk about it, because you were saying, it’s not just the kids, but adults, too… David Lindon, who’s a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of medicine, says “As adults, touch is social glue. It binds people in the workplace into effective teams.” Crazy, huh?
Touch can be metaphorical too, right? Is the touch in this case, to some degree, metaphorical?
…when it comes to teams?
No, I mean – like, even in teams. There was a research study done, and I wanna say it was with NBA teams at the first part of the season, and all that the guys do, sort of smacking one another on the backside, bumping arms, hugging after good plays - they wanted to see if there were any implications of how they played in the second half of the season… And ironically, they did better. So I’m literally talking touch. So it doesn’t have to be intimate partner touching, romantic touching, but literally touching. Some people might say a touch on the shoulder… So safe touching, generally speaking, when you have more latitude, would basically be from the shoulder to the hand.
So think of somebody who you have rapport with, you’ve worked with for some time, who you find out they just lost someone they love, that you might be apt to touch them on the shoulder and be like “I am so sorry to hear that.” This is why when we talk about touch, we’re gonna talk about emotions, because it also helps convey empathy and emotional understanding.
Right. The interesting thing too I think is that when we’re younger, we get touched a lot by our parents; we touch our parents a lot. So as we age, somehow obviously sexuality comes into play, and intimacy comes into play with touch, so as we get older and become more mature, touch becomes more purposeful, less frequent, for the obvious reasons… But then the thing is to sort of reframe how we think about touch and how it impacts our life.
My example of a scenario like this that you just gave is with my son. When my son is super-upset or he’s frantic for some reason, or he can’t get his words out and he’s just upset, I give him a big hug. And he sort of inhales, exhales, and just calms down in my arms (same with my wife), because there’s something that happens metabolically with the touch and the process of touch.
[07:57] But you’re not always a kid, and you’re not always a parent, so you’re a team member on a professional team - basketball, a software team, an engineering team at a high-profile company, an individual that’s a remote worker… Where does touch come into play in these scenarios that makes sense? So do you have rules of engagement in a business, for example? …like “When we can touch, it’s in these ways that are appropriate.” How do you (I suppose) prescribe touch to teams?
Well, sure. Like with anything, of course, there’s guard rails and there’s parameters… And really, I would say that there is personal preference, and that two people participate in what they allow or feel comfortable with. It’s interesting, because someone said the fact is that there is a cultural variation in comfort with touch, which shows that ironically how comfortable we are in one thing or another is predominantly learned. It’s not something that’s inherent or innate, like you’re born with it and says “This is okay and this is not.”
Think about it like tickling. I would suspect that people have different preferences and levels of acceptability as it relates to tickling, and going “I’m okay with being tickled” or like “No. Dear God. I do no like it.”
“Not even my boss, but like anyone.” You may have specific preferences like that. There’s a thing that happens at tech conferences that I’ll bring up, that is slightly interesting in the fact that it sort of identifies publicly, in a silent matter. Like, I don’t have to walk around saying I have these certain preferences; I can wear a certain badge, or a certain color on the badge, given to me based upon my preferences conveyed to the conference organizers, and it lets the photographers know I’m okay with being photographed… Or I prefer these pronouns, or whatever it might be…
So there’s these personal preferences you could put out there, and maybe in a work environment there’s some sort of rules of engagement like “Okay, we understand that touch is important, and that team-based touching has better implications to deeper attachment, greater empathy”, whatever the things might be… “But these are my limits.” Or “I’m okay with handshakes only. I’m a handshake-only person. Happy to handshake as part of our team touching. Or high five.” Or “I’m okay with pats on the back.” Maybe that gets too weird, I don’t know. I don’t have specifics into that, so what do you think?
Well, I think that because the way in which we’re talking about this, we’re getting at the way in which there’s an emotional component to it… So I don’t even know that you can say that there’s generalities. I mean, even on a team, you still have individual relationships, and go “I might be more comfortable with one person, because I feel safer in some way with them, or less vulnerable.”
Say for example you have a co-worker who despite your efforts at communicating clearly, of saying “Hey, when you come up to my desk, come alongside, or let me know. It bothers me, because I feel startled everytime you come up behind me”, and they don’t take that feedback and they continue to not do anything different. So that isn’t going to foster a sense of trust, because they’re not incorporating the feedback you’re giving them, which then in turn will likely make them feel less comfortable, which could - not to say it would, but could - make them say like “I don’t want this person to touch me, because I don’t feel as if they’re safe or respectful.” So they’re not going to manage themself differently, that would then in turn manage our relationship differently.
So it’s to say that touch is very personal.
I’m very touchy (to use a pun) when it comes to talking about it, because there are some people who have been touched inappropriately in their life, and they feel certain ways because of it, or uncomfortability with a co-worker, or anybody. And that’s okay.
[12:08] But I think what we’re trying to do is help people understand what touch is to being human, how it affects our brains, how it affects our relationships, the roles it plays, and how to reframe our thoughts on it around healthy ways of touching, and the ways it does really help interpersonal relationships between partners, father and son, mother and daughter, co-workers… In any walk of life, how touch can play a role in helping you be more human.
Right. I love this quote by David Eagleman. He says “You can’t touch something without being touched yourself.” And even as we’re thinking about this, I have the image always of like “My hand is the thing doing the touching.” But I can touch things with my elbows… I mean, I think about one time when I was in New York City, and people would walk by and touch my arms in the middle of the scorching heat, which I was not preferable to. So it doesn’t just mean with our hands, it can be feet, and different body parts etc. But that’s part of what’s interesting in it phenomenologically - there are two pathways in our brain for how we process touch. Did you know that?
Yeah, so there’s this sensory pathway, which gives us facts about the touch, like the pressure, location, or the fine texture, and then that second pathway processes the social and emotional information, determining more of the emotional content of the interpersonal touch.
For example, walking in New York, where it’s highly dense, and that people bump into each other as just a sort of way of life - I’m not processing that as a personal attack, or like the person was trying to touch me. So my response is likely very different, as I just was aware of the facts - I felt the pressure and the location of it, and the fine texture of a little bit of slime.
Slime… [laughs] Sweat slime. Yeah, that exchange that happens, you’re like “That’s kind of icky.” So you may be uncomfortable with it, but it’s not like an advance of some sort.
Sure. So that then affects my response. And this is why I think it’s so helpful to have conversations around these topics, because when we know or understand more of what’s going on internally, it allows us to make a different interpretation or understanding of the way in which what’s going in the inside is affected by things on the outside, including both people and experiences, so that I have an opportunity to examine it and potentially respond differently.
I don’t know if this is a perfect example, but I think a dark room - to know where you’re at in a dark room when you can’t see anything, what might you do? You’d probably reach out your hand…
…begin to feel around, right? This sense of touch is sort of like your eyeballs in some cases, or the ability to see. And even with Braille, for example, and mentioning how there’s two different pathways of understanding sensory and then emotion - you know, you don’t read Braille with your elbow; you might read it with your fingers, or your lips potentially… Not your calf muscle or your elbow. So there’s specifics around this. But it’s kind of an exploratory thing even.
It’s a multi-faceted sensory that we have.
Yeah. I think I’ve shared this before, but remember when I’ve talked through that experience of VR, wherein I went up the elevator and I had the opportunity to walk off a beautiful little wooden plank?
[16:01] Right, yes…
…and the way in which I navigated it, because the information that one sense was telling me - what I could see and what I could hear - was alternative to other things that I knew. So I actually got down on the floor and touched the floor beside the plank to remind myself that there’s still ground. I literally wasn’t gonna step off into the abyss and fall down to my death.
One layer deeper to that then - how did it feel to see and hear something different than what you touched? Because when you touched the floor, it didn’t feel like a plank in water, or empty space; it was –
Sure. It was the carpet.
…the carpet, or whatever. Exactly.
[laughs] It was carpet, yeah.
So how did you react to the fact that you see something different than you feel?
This is so interesting… It calmed me down, because I was going on with it, like it was pleasant; I wasn’t necessarily anxious. But when the doors opened and I saw the mountains and the skyscrapers and the birds - my brain started to tell me a different story. So that’s when I got down and was like “Okay…” Well, first I think I tried to walk a couple of steps and I’m like “Really? Really…?”
[laughs] Yeah… So this is why it’s super-important in recognizing how we process. So that first part, which tells us about the pressure, location and texture, this is the first place or first region of the brain that gets hit by our sensation of touch, and that is called the primary somatosensory cortex. Say that ten times fast. Somatosensory cortex.
Doctor Lindon - remember the doctor I’ve mentioned, who is a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins - says that it basically analyzes information through a series of processing stages that extract more and more complicated information. It’s about figuring out the facts, and it uses sequential stages of processing to gradually build up tactile images and perform the recognition of objects. So I know what carpet feels like, I’m having the experience, and I can feel the hardness of the floor beneath it as well… It didn’t feel like wood, like my visual system told me.
Even so though, to pause there, to think like, okay, my brain has an association, not just with the notion of carpet, or colors of carpet, or how it visually looks, but I also have this notion of the framework of knowing that if I touch this, this feels like carpet. So there’s a multi-sensory object-oriented graph happening in my brain when it comes to memory and association. There might even be a certain smell associated with carpet, which there is.
I’m not sure you can – you can probably hear carpet by rubbing your feet on it or something like that, or wiping your hand around, so there’s a multi-sensory attachment or designation to an object, or objects of the world.
Yeah. So I’m gonna dig a little deeper then to sort of talk through that grid or map that you’re referencing as it relates to the brain. So if you can imagine, sensations come from the outside in. I sense. And the signal is from the touch receptors in my skin, which - my fingertips happen to have a lot of little receptors, so they’re dense… And those little signals travel along the sensory nerves that connect to neurons in my spinal cord. So then it pulls up through the thalamus, which relays information to the rest of the brain, which would then be that somatosensory cortex, which is where your brain goes “Oh, this is a touch perception. This is what is going on.” So imagine that this part of your brain is where you would wear headphones or a headband; that’s the part of the brain that’s the somatosensory aspect. So sensitive areas like our lips and fingertips stimulate much larger regions of the cortex than less sensitive parts like, say, your back. So it depends on the number of receptors per unit area, and the distance between them.
[20:27] Yeah… It’s interesting, it’s crazy how deep this goes, even down to the memory graph of objects to registering emotion, or the amount of receptors to convey back to my somatosensory cortex etc. You know, what kind of touch this is; is it an infraction on my personal beliefs? All this happens so quickly.
It does, it does. This is why it’s so crazy. So how neurologists look at this, the sensitivity we have, is looking at the minimum distance between the two points on somebody’s skin, where a person can identify different distinct stimuli, as opposed to just one. So if I move something on one part of my fingertip as opposed to another part, I’m still probably going to feel it on my fingertip, as opposed to my back, where I could go further way and have a different experience, because I could feel two parts, as opposed to one.
Who would have known or thought that touch could be so dynamic? I guess it would make sense, but digging into the science of it, to me, is what really keeps me curious… Because it’s really no end to how you can see touch playing a role, and the way it can be used for pain management, it could be used for building relationships, it could be used for being offended, it could be used for seeing your way around a dark room… It’s really interesting how much touch plays a role in our lives, and I think that’s what’s really interesting to me - to open that door up and examine/explore just how this thing we may take for granted is to us.
Yeah, so that’s only step one. We only got to the first stop for the train. [laughs]
Okay, let’s go to the next stop.
So the second pathway processes the social and emotional information, interpreting or determining more of the emotional content of the touch. So that pathway activates brain regions associated with social bonding, pleasure, and pain, which is the posterior insula. See, this is why when people are like “Oh, it’s just this one thing in your brain” - it’s never ever that simple. So the touch we have, interpersonal touch, especially that caress, sends signals to the posterior insula, which produces that soft, pleasant sensation, which is why even in intimate relationships you can touch someone and say “I don’t like it when you touch like that.” Or “That’s too hard” or “That’s too soft.” People have preferences, and it influences or impacts how you…
How you feel.
Social bonding is interesting, especially around touch. Going back to the NBA and that study - I think that’s so interesting how they can examine the congratulatory behaviors and the many ways that teammates touch one another to do that, whether it’s a slap on the butt, a slap on the back, a high five, a gigantic hug, a team pile-on… All these things, I would imagine, is 1) the aspect of touching, but 2) it’s like “I’m with you. On the same team, we’re together, in the same emotion.”
[23:55] So it’s a multi-faceted sort of thing, not just simply the touch, but to have that as an examination of whether or not they play better in the second half of the game or the season is really interesting, because what would happen if that team didn’t ever touch? They’d play pretty poorly; they’d have not deep and well-connected personal relationships, and to me that’s an interesting fact about the teams we play on, in terms of professionally, or even interpersonally. Your team is your home team. My team is my wife and my kids. Your team is your husband and your kids. But professionally, we have other teams, and how does that play a role?
You know, I’m gonna get sort of giddy as I talk about research, because it just blows my mind, like a kid in the candy store. So there is a researcher, a psychologist Matthew Herrnstein out of DePaul University, who’s looked at some of this back in 2009. So what he discovered or demonstrated with his research was that we have this innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. Touch, that’s it. So in a series of studies, what he did is had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger, solely through touch.
So what were the emotions? Like anger, distrust…?
I’m getting there, I’m getting there…
Okay… Hey, I’m giddy too, sorry. [laughter] It’s interesting.
Obviously, the participants were somewhat apprehensive, because I think we can be a bit touch-phobic as a culture or society, and we’re not always necessarily used to touching strangers or friends. But what they discovered is that participants communicated eight distinct emotions: anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness.
Wow. Okay. Some of those are very similar.
Right, so anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness, with accuracy rates as high as 78%.
They’re just good guessers. They’re just good at guessing, that’s all. I mean, it’s limited options here, Mireille, so it can’t be – I’m just kidding. But could you imagine how you would differentiate between sympathy and sadness? Or gratitude and – what was the other one…? I think it was happiness in there, I can’t recall… But how do you differentiate a touch with those? I don’t even know how it would feel, a gratitude touch.
Well, I think about it in terms of like loss, or grief. So how I would touch someone when I’m like “I’m so sorry.” This sense of “Gosh, here’s sympathy. You’re going through this”, as opposed to love. And then it’s gonna pull back on that other system, of the pressure of it, and the way and the place. All of those things matter, because I’m not gonna smack somebody super-hard if I’m trying to convey – I mean, maybe anger… But you know, happiness… Right? The pressure, the nuances, which is why these systems sort of work together, to go “Hey, I can recognize the emotional tone”, which is how too I can feel like someone might be less safe, or I’m less comfortable with one person touching me, as opposed to another.
I can’t help but think about how touch is happening less at this very moment.
And not just simply because of a pandemic and all of that, but simply the distance too, with people not collocating for work, not collocating for exercise when it comes to team sports… There’s probably not a lot of basketball happening in the public. Maybe in some private teams it might be happening, where there’s more trust and medical care around to confirm everybody’s safe, or whatever it might be… But I know Jerod here at Changelog is like “I miss playing basketball with my buddies.”
[28:12] Yeah, yeah.
What I’m getting at though is what do we do then when we can’t physically touch? What’s a surrogate for touch in a world we can’t literally touch? Or even in the case of people who are just distant, close friends, but can’t touch physically?
Yeah, this is where we utilize other textures and other things. I think about baby blankets, like why do we give gifts – everybody gets inundated with baby blankets when they’re having a child, because it’s like they’re so soft, and they’re cuddly, and they’re warm… It’s a good sensory experience; it’s something I want to be nearby. And so with this, what you’re getting at too is the way in which touch is this basis for our emotional health because of the way it impacts our nervous system.
There was a researcher some years ago, back in the ’50s I believe it was; his name was Harlow, and he did this research with monkeys. What he did is took infant monkeys from their biological mothers and gave them to inanimate surrogate mothers, so two non-living things. One was a simple construction of wire and wood, and the other was covered in foam rubber and terry cloth, i.e. one was soft and one was really hard. And the infants were then assigned to one of the two conditions.
Then he gave the wire mother a bottle of milk, but the cloth mother had nothing. In both conditions, what he found is that the infant monkeys spend more time with the terry cloth mother than they did with the wire mother. When only the wire mother had food, the babies went to the wire mother to feed, and then immediately returned to cling to the cloth surrogate.
So we can use these surrogates, and that’s needed. This is why even some people look at – and I’m not sure exactly all the research relative to this at present, but weighted blankets for individuals who struggle with autism. There’s a way in which the pressure of the weighted blanket feels differently to their nervous system, that helps provide calm. So we can reduce our experience of displeasure or pain and provide comfort through surrogate touch. Just like we talked about surrogate in the orphanages, that there was another person providing that touch, to feel like they weren’t all by themselves.
I’m gonna start a new startup. This is gonna be like Grubhub, or something like that, where they are dispatched to go give hugs on a behalf to people. [laughter] Maybe that exists, I don’t know… But you know, I think of it in moments of grief even; whenever something really bad happens to friends, loved ones, and you can’t physically be there… you know, a basket, or a succulent, or a gift card is a good gesture, and maybe the gesture is enough, but… It’s never enough. It’s enough to suffice, but nothing replaces a literal embrace in a time of need.
Yeah, and I think that this is really more challenging for many of us, given our current circumstances, in that we all have people that we love and care about, that we would like to be able to touch or embrace… That it isn’t wise to do so, for one reason or another.
How familiar are you with emojis?
[laughs] Yeah… Do I use them, you mean?
Well, I suppose the psychology side of them. I think of the fist bump emoji, for example.
[32:10] Or the beers cheers one, or a thumbs up, or the handshake or the clap - these are all touch-based – especially the clap; you’re touching yourself, but there’s an auditory thing that happens.
It’s a response to congratulate. Like we had said, sort of like with the moneys here - you’ve got the surrogate… Those emojis act as surrogates. You’ve got the huggy face emoji even, where you – maybe you feel to some degree hugged whenever you get the huggy, emotionally… Maybe you don’t, I don’t know, but the point is these emojis play a role.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but it prompts ironically another question, and thinking about the way in which we’ve become so reactive around likes or non-likes, or all of these different ways that we get feedback on social media… Because they are the way in which we communicate, that does affect relationships, and that it touches us in a way that we may prefer or not prefer.
So… Somebody can take a look at that more, and let me know… No, but I wanna go back to Harlow too as we’re having this, because it highlights more of the role of touch in managing emotion. What he also did was look at the way in which the infants turn to this inanimate surrogate mother for comfort when they were faced with newer, scary situations. When they were in a new environment, the infant monkeys would explore the area, run back to the surrogate mother when startled, and then venture out to explore again. Without that surrogate mother, these infant monkeys became paralyzed with fear, huddled in a ball, sucking their thumbs. And if any alarming noise toy was placed in the cage, an infant with that surrogate mother, again, would explore and attack the toy. But without it, the infant would cower in fear. I don’t know of a more powerful way to highlight how much we need other people.
Yeah. The infant monkey felt safe. It had trust for that surrogate mother. It associated its safety and emotional safety with that mother; there was clearly some sort of relationship. It felt protected, it didn’t feel stressed, it didn’t feel the effects of pain, so to speak. It can even teeter into the pain management scenario even. It would go and attack, it felt courage even; it felt bolstered to go and attack the toy, whereas without the surrogate, it would cower in fear…
Right. So we’re apt to be affected by not having somebody with us, or someone that can be there to walk alongside us, comfort us etc. I think about this in the very real experience of child birth… I mean, pretty painful, just a little bit. And I did it a couple of times. And I can vividly remember my experience, because I was fortunate enough to have both opportunities, one with a painkiller, real, and one without it, with just a person and other things. And I vividly remember when I was in active labor the way in which my providers would go and heat up these super-big, warm blankets, and very gently but firmly place them and pressure them on my legs. And it provided so much calm that I remember seeing the trees outside, and I remember that moment, but I don’t remember the pain. I know I was in pain, but I’m more distant from the pain that was going on in my body at that time.
[36:15] It shows the power of awareness, right?
…and what you’re focused on. Because you’re focus - sure, you were in dual focuses; I’m sure you couldn’t totally defocus from the pain… But you had a new focus that changed your awareness and broadened itm and allowed you to have an attachment to a different emotion and a different scenario than just the one. So being able to sort of like positively distract yourself was a good thing in that moment.
Yeah. And I had help. It literally wasn’t something I could have provided to myself at that time.
Yeah, that’s true too, because you’d have to be amazing - which you are amazing - but even more so, to be able to [unintelligible 00:36:59.01] and comfort yourself. Like, how often when you feel sick though you want somebody else to care for you? …because there’s something tender in that. There’s something that just shows and expresses love, to be cared for.
Yeah. But so it then really acts as this sort of analgesic. The pain reducer. And so what if we were able to reconceptualize or sort of rethink how we view touch in our lives? …and really make it more that binary, like it’s good or it’s bad, or it’s right or it’s wrong. In what ways does it actually support us in living life more fully, like feeling more of that sense of freedom? …like, if I need to attack a really loud, alarming toy, I can do it.
Yeah. It brings up… When I was in the military – when you’re in the military, the first thing they do for you is they assign you a buddy. It’s traumatic. I was young, 18, going into the military, so a very young mind; not a lot of lived life experience… Just a lot of things that I was just deficient in emotionally, maturity, financially, experientially… Many, many ways; and the one way they remedy that is by assigning you a buddy. You go nowhere alone. If you’re alone, you get in trouble.
Yeah, like “Where’s your buddy?” is the common question.
If you’re somewhere without a buddy… Like, you go to the bathroom – they might not be in the same stall with you, but they go to the restroom with you. They call it the latrine in the military, but whatever… It’s not a bathroom.
I can’t believe I didn’t mention this earlier with everything we’ve talked about, but what that buddy does, what this sense of closeness does is help boost oxytocin, that stress-reducing hormone. It protects you against the effects of stress. A hug from a friend isn’t only comforting, it produces serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, which also helps then boost our immune system to manage getting sick. I mean, seriously, what an irony… Touch could actually help mitigate stress, and yet we’re not really supposed to touch very much.
Yeah… Well, there’s certainly conflicting sciences in all scenarios, I would say… And maybe for a time being, this one in particular, there is an extreme reaction, but I do believe that there is a necessity for those who have this kind of information around serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, especially when it comes to touch, to come forth with science that makes sense, and research that makes sense, to sort of give us different data points.
Like you said, with touch, being able to differentiate between different emotions, it’s because it’s nuanced. It’s more data.
[40:00] When you were in that VR scenario, you didn’t just feel better because you felt the floor, it was because you had more data to make a more wise decision. And that’s why we need more data around the physicality and the socio-ways we operate as a species. We can’t depart completely from touch. We have to understand its role. Obviously, do it in safe ways, that make sense given our current circumstances; I’m not saying against that. But to understand its role, and to not diminish it or reduce it completely. That it does play a role, a significant role.
Yeah, I can’t speak enough to how thankful I am that German soccer has returned, so I can have some semblance of normal on the weekends… But even watching these guys out on the field - you know, they’re still engaging in touch, but doing it in different ways, and I just think there’s so much value in recognizing “Hey, we’re on the same team.” So it might be a forearm bump, and different things… And of course, as far as I understand, there’s more protocols in place for their safety, but this sense of togetherness is part of what touch is about, because it mitigates vulnerability. As we talked about, of course I’m gonna feel more stressed if I’m all by myself; I’ve gotta figure out how to do it and nobody is with me. On some level, I know I can’t get away from the awareness of my vulnerability, no matter what the situation.
So if I’m to sort of wrap this up and go “Why does touch matter?”, it matters because of safety and trust. It matters in terms of how we regulate our emotion, and then manage our relationship. It protects against these harmful effects of stress, and it also helps manage pain.
Look, fundamentally, physical touch is this foundational element of human development and culture. We need to foster safe social environments wherein we have mediated communication, wherein we still are deliberate about ways in which we can hold on to physical touch in an alternative way.
Hey, Mireille, we forgot to talk about something pretty important during the show, so let’s put it in the after-show. It’s the importance of reciprocation when it comes to touch. How you touch back. Tell us about that.
Yeah, I can’t believe I left that out. This was just so striking to me, because I work with couples and people in relationships all the time, wherein touch matters; people tend to have different experiences and expectations when it comes to their partner.
[44:02] So what psychologists noted was that while couples who are satisfied with each other do tend to touch more, especially at the beginning of their relationship, the true indicator of a healthy long-term bond is not necessarily how often your partner touches you, but how often they touch you in response to your touch.
The stronger the reciprocity - like, “I give, you give” - the more likely someone is to report feeling this emotional intimacy and satisfaction with their relationship. So as is often true in relationships, satisfaction is as much about what we do for our partner, as it is about what we’re getting from them. Ain’t that crazy?
Yeah… It’s like a journey, like a dance. It’s like “I give, you give.” The steps are – like, I’m the left foot, my wife is the right foot… [unintelligible 00:45:02.24] but it doesn’t matter; the point is we share the role of like my foot goes forward, her foot goes forward, and it’s this depth of relationship and this journey together… It really is that togetherness. I almost said on the show, like “Better together.” What is not really better together?” And in this case, together is “I give/You give” touch, and that’s insane how reciprocity plays such a strong role.
I think it’s important to know when you’re in these kinds of relationships, to understand how important it is for you to give back as much as you’re given. Your response to touch, how important that is… Because it seems logical, but not always awareness of its logic and science.
Yeah. And I think that as we talked about on the show, even the way in which you respond matters. It’s sort of like, if my husband were to reach out for my hand and I let him have it, but it was super-limp, and like “Meh”, right…?
Not involved, not interested… It sends signals. Yes, exactly.
Right? So it’s like he’s pitching to me, and I’m like “I could take it or leave it” is sort of what I’m saying, which doesn’t prompt like “I gotcha” or “I feel ya”, and now there’s more connection. So if you can think of it sort of like resonance, like I want things to come together and sound like they go together, and if I were to create some sort of musical song related to that interaction, it would be like the sound of [unintelligible 00:46:37.23]
Like he did not get what he put out. And that, from a learning perspective, isn’t going to prompt further reaching out. It’s likely going to prompt the opposite, a recoiling… Like “I might be more timid in my approach towards you, because you don’t really embrace me back.”
Well, that’s also retraction and isolation, so not building the relationship, not coming together… Which is arguably the point of relationship, is to build together, not to retract and isolate.
Yeah, exactly. And I just think that – like, there’s so many things in life, and the longer I’ve been with my partner, the more I see the value in that; you create these experiences, and everything is enhanced when we do it together. We watch our kids do their thing, be it on the sporting field or in school, or in whatever nuanced way, and to have the look, the shared exchange of like “Yeah, you’d be proud, too”, right? It enhances that positive emotion.
We want more of that positive emotion throughout our lives, because again, that buffers more of the negative and the stress.
Yeah. My highest mountains in my life are only as high as they are because of who I share them with.
If I did it in isolation on my own, like “Whatever…” But they’re triumphs and wins and milestones only to the point they are because I get to enjoy them with my wife and my kids. They understand our journey together, and those mountain tops and milestones are so much bigger because we’re together.
Yup. And you can never get enough.
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