Can it be the lack of simple human contact that is slowly destroying modern society? It’s certainly one of the major elements that contribute to loneliness. And it’s getting worse.
We – those of us living in industrialised societies – have been conditioned and trained for over two hundred years to live with a minimum of touch, and to regard societies who touch their children from birth to adulthood as ‘primitive’ and unsophisticated. This is not just wrong, not just a shame, but dangerous.
Touch deprivation sets us up for mental and physical illness throughout our lives. It’s socially divisive and encourages aggression, instils fear, separates people. And creates loneliness. Not being touched – simple, friendly, kind, loving, no-strings touch – is an all too common cause of unhappiness and illness. But the good news is that it’s simple to remedy.
The earliest medicine
Hippocrates, father of Western medicine, said that only three things are necessary for prolonged health: regular exercise, sensible diet, and regular massage.
Early on in my year’s training in massage, our teacher stated what seemed like an outrageous opinion: ‘If each of us had a massage every day or even every week, hospitals would soon be out of business.’ He talked about touch deprivation, the lack of simple human contact that means that most of us crave touch, although we probably don’t even realise it. We might call it loneliness – we all know that it’s perfectly possible to be lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage. It’s not solitude that gets you, it’s being – literally – out of touch.
Deprived of touch
Remember the shock of seeing TV pictures of young children in Romanian orphanages? Almost catatonic, standing behind the bars of their cots, faces devoid of emotion, they were starving, not from lack of food, but from lack of human contact. Too many children and not enough staff. No-one with time to play with them, talk to them, hold them.
The medical term is marasmus: failure to thrive – at worst, dying for no apparent reason.
Harry Harlow’s famous study touch deprivation in the 1950s showed that of the five basic senses, touch was the one essential to life. Harlow took newborn monkeys from their mothers and put them in a cage with two surrogate ‘mothers’ made from chicken wire round a wooden frame, one wrapped in soft terry cloth, the other bare wire. In every way the monkeys were well cared for, except they had no contact with other monkeys or even the scientists. The baby monkeys clung to the soft cloth surrogate and refused to move away even though the feeding bottle was attached to the other surrogate. Touch was more important than food. Skin hunger is worse than starvation.
Ever wonder, these days, about babies lying in incubators, row on row of them, in maternity hospitals sometimes long after their mothers have gone home? Untouched, abandoned in a plastic box, crying for their mothers…
Ever wonder about the elderly, who have lost touch with spouses and children, isolated and lonely?
Ever wonder about the young, disconnected and out of touch as they face a crowded, lonely world?
Splitting body and mind apart
Tony Cawley, a psychotherapist based in Liverpool, is frustrated by the lack of attention to the importance of touch given by his profession. “It’s obvious to me how incredibly powerful touch is to the mind, but mind doctors aren’t allowed to touch their clients. Therapists don’t even talk about touch: it’s extraordinary.
“The response of the psychotherapy profession to the work of Harlow and John Bowlby is conspicuous by its absence. Why? Are we so shy of touch because it leads to the thorny subject of sexuality?”
Western society is now obsessed with what is termed ‘inappropriate touching’; the paedophile is the modern Beelzebub, and judging by the legal measures to ‘protect’ children from the risk of sexual abuse, every British adult is a prospective paedophile. And children are closed off from simple, social touch, which is potentially disastrous for society as a whole.
Britain has been a very disconnected nation since Victorian times, at least; touch is conducted under strict but unwritten rules. Even families of my generation – my parents got married during World War 2 – didn’t touch. A clash of cheekbones at greeting and parting were about it, and handshakes between men. The next generation is better, but now it’s the law that prevents touch rather than some cultural taboo.
Touch deprivation and violence
In many academic and clinical studies, touch deprivation is linked to aggression and violence. In the 1970s James Prescott studied 400 human societies and found that those who lavished affectionate touch on their children, and were tolerant of teenage sex, were the least violent societies on earth. He also found the converse true.
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. Many 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.
The simplest way to health
Touch, or the lack of it, can dramatically affect emotional, mental and physical health. It has huge implications for society, let alone the family and the individual. So my massage teacher’s claim doesn’t seem so outrageous after all. It begins to look as though touch could be the philosopher’s stone of human health, so perhaps the NHS should sack a lot of managers and hire some top notch bodyworkers.
The corporate health industry wouldn’t like it. If massage were to be more widely used, the need for drugs and surgery would drop, which would not go down well with investors.
But why can’t we use what we already have to heal and comfort and reconnect our society? Who’s to say we can’t?
The research points to Hippocrates having it right 2,500 years ago. Let’s learn from history, for once, and put more trust in the innate ability of humans to heal with the tools we were born with: head, hands and heart.
- Why have we lost the need for physical touch? (psychologytoday.com)
- Medical Massage and Cancer: Healing with a Human Touch (omtimes.com)
- The story of a lonely brain (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- A touching remedy for the lonely (banishloneliness.org)
- The Dangers of Isolating Social Creatures (asolitarytorture.wordpress.com)
- Cuddling – How Important Is It (and Should We Pay for It)? (psychologytoday.com)
- The Doctor Will Hug You Now (roxcell.wordpress.com)
- The importance of touch (courierpress.com)