A touching remedy for the lonely

It’s clear enough that the sense of touch is important for babies – lots of people learn baby massage, and the sling is back in fashion so that infants are carried next to their parent’s body rather than at arm’s length in a pushchair.

But don’t we grow out of the need for touch?

Well… have you?

Children get as much touch as they like from their pets

Kittens never reject affection and are perfect for touch-deprived humans

I haven’t. I learned as a small child not to expect touch, and then to do without it. I had pets instead – dogs and cats, who adored being stroked and patted and weren’t ashamed to ask for strokes. Am I alone in relying on pets for innocent physical affection? Did anyone else experience this? Is this why Anglo-Saxons love their pets so much?

[Oh.. I’ve just remembered that psychologists in the 1960s – Eric Berne and then Thomas Harris – used the word ‘stroke’ to mean the emotional equivalent of a physical stroke: a compliment, praise, an endorsement, an award. Something that makes you want to purr. A feel-good moment. Imagine a cat stretching and purring under a stroking human hand…]

Touch is the first sense to develop in the human foetus. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and develops from the same stem cells as the brain. Frequent pleasurable touch for infants results in positive change in brain tissue, while chronic touch deprivation or trauma results in measurable brain damage. Lots of scientific studies have shown the critical importance of good touch to the developing infant and the growing child. It remains vital – touch-deprived adults may turn to food, alcohol or drugs to make up for the lack of physical contact, or adopt behaviours from promiscuous sex to shop lifting.

Think about your skin. There’s a lot of it, and it’s far more than a barrier between you and the outside world. it’s in organ, like your heart or your lungs, and in it are thousands of nerve endings which pick up a mass of information that help us operate and survive, give us pain or pleasure, and a whole spectrum of subtle emotions and reactions that we don’t consciously notice.

Think of losing all that information because you don’t get touched. For the elderly, who are the focus of current campaigns, loneliness is often the result of losing a spouse, family moving away, friends becoming housebound or dying… that’s bad enough and can be devastating. But imagine how appalling it must be to live your whole life, from childhood onwards, feeling out of touch, not connected, lost and alienated in a crowded world, because you didn’t get the touch your body and brain needed in your early years.

What about young adults who leave home to go to university or to a job in another city; dealing with a whole new world with only strangers around you, with none of the contact and support of home and friends…

And so on through life. Being deprived of touch is one of the key causes of loneliness, and getting touch is one of the key remedies.

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2 comments on “A touching remedy for the lonely

  1. gosh, that is so true and explains so much. Thank you.
    Will pass on to no 3 daughter, new mummy- to- be, and ask her to cuddle me as well!!

    • Arabella says:

      Thanks Anita! Do say to No3 daughter (how exciting!) that baby massage is REALLY important for brain development and bonding and all sorts of other things. Massage and cuddles all our lives, of course, but early years are absolutely crucial. And very nice for all involved… xx

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