“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen to rather share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” – Henri Nouwen
Do any of us sit around and contemplate our sense of touch? Well, that’s probably a “no”. But when we think about it, our sense of touch truly is a gift. Those of us with families and close friends understand the satisfaction that comes from our ability to hug, kiss and embrace our loved ones – a gift derived from our ability to touch.
There are also some very interesting factoids about this sense that stimulate newfound appreciation for a powerful human trait we think little about. An underlying commonality that these items share is that touch is an intricate and inseparable part of who we are as human beings.
Here are 5 little-known facts about our sense of touch:
1. Touch is literally affected by emotion
It’s quite clear that our perception of touch can be affected by the social context of the interaction. We’re much more likely to interpret the interaction positively if it is initiated under positive pretenses. For example, a loving mother’s arm around one’s shoulders creates different emotions than that of a boss we don’t particularly care for. This much is obvious.
What’s not so obvious is that it actually feels different from a purely physical aspect. Dr. David Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, puts it this way:
“It’s not just that the context is different – it will actually feel different. The reason is because these emotional touch brain areas are getting information about the social context from other parts of the brain.”
2. Touch involves the processing of two different brain pathways
The human brain uses two different pathways to process the sense of touch, one is sensory and the other is emotional. The sensory pathway provides the physical interpretation of touch – texture, location, pressure, vibration, etc. The emotional pathway processes the psychological components of touch for our interpretation.
Aside from interpersonal encounters, the majority of sensations created through touch are emotionally-neutral. Thus, we utilize the sensory pathway – the somatosensory cortex – disproportionately in relation to the emotional pathway.
3. Touch is the first sense we develop
Incredibly, human beings begin to develop a sense of touch just three weeks after conception. At eight weeks, the embryo begins to interpret touch and react to its stimulation.
Skin sensitivity quickly extends to other areas of the body, as well. The genital areas sensitize by 10 weeks, the palms by 11 weeks, soles of the feet by 12 weeks, abdomen and buttocks by 17 weeks, and the entire body, with the exception of the head, by 32 weeks.
In a study done at Durham University, 4-D images reveal that the ability to anticipate touch begins in the womb. For the first time, scientists understand that fetuses can predict their own hand movements in the later stages of pregnancy. This breakthrough was discovered in images that displayed the fetus opening its mouth before bringing up its hand.
4. Touch impacts our lives in unexpected ways
The impact that touch has on our personal lives and the world around us are various, and certainly unexpected. Consider some of these now-known facts about the effects of touch:
– Scratching is “contagious” because of our disease-fighting instincts.
– “Fist-bumping” between athletes can directly affect the outcome of a competition.
– Our brains prefer the subtle pain of scratching over an itching sensation.
– The nature of physical interaction during an interview can increase the odds of being hired.
5. Touch is essential to our development and health
Touch is an important part of our emotional and mental health. This is especially true in the newborn to early childhood stages of life (0 to 8 years old), as this period is when the brain is undergoing its most rapid development. Dr. Linden explains:
“If you don’t get touch right after you’re born, all kinds of terrible things happen, and not just cognitive and emotional. Your immune system doesn’t develop properly, you digestive system tends to have a problem – there’s a whole rack of health problems that can develop if you don’t receive touch in early life.”
After early childhood, touch remains a vital part of our well-being. This is partly because touch plays a key role in human communication, and human beings are social creatures. Touch also has a multitude of physical and psychological effects – from reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure, to enhancing physical intimacy and forging new bonds.
The takeaway: remember to accept and generously share the power of touch.