It’s a touchy subject but human contact is vital to our health and well-being. Unspoken communication flows between people who share direct skin-to-skin contact. Sometimes, the act of touching is intentional but there many occasions when humans touch each other subconsciously – without conscious awareness.
One little-known factoid is that our skin is, in fact, our largest organ. If laid out flat, it would weigh about eight pounds and measure 22 square feet. Skin contains an incredible number of nerves which act as a huge sensory network that connects the brain with the external world.
Think for a moment about all the ways we can touch each other: with affection or disdain, support or dismissal, acceptance or rejection.
There may be nothing as profound as the gentle, loving caress a baby gets from its caring parent. This is especially true for infants born prematurely, before the full nine months of normal gestation. These fragile and underdeveloped babes are commonly separated from their mothers and placed in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) where they can be monitored and cared for by a skilled nursing staff.
In 1979, in Bogota, Colombia, neonatological specialists Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez worked in neonatal wards that didn’t have enough incubators for babies with severe hospital infections. Taking a cue from kangaroo mothers which hold their young immediately after birth, the doctors “sent mothers home with the instruction to hold their infants diapered but bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position as often as possible, feeding them only breast milk.”
The skin-to-skin contact eased the hospital’s overcrowding as mothers were able to check out sooner because their babies grew less dependent on incubators. Best of all, the physicians observed mortality rates drop from 70 percent to 30 percent.
This now trendy “kangaroo care” or “kangaroo mother care” is being recommended for both moms and dads of premie and full-term infants. The direct skin bonding can last from one hour to 24 hours a day. In other words, you can’t over-cuddle your baby.
Dr. Nils Bergman, the senior medical superintendent of Mowbray Maternity Hospital in Cape Town, Africa, helps deliver 7,000 children annually. Dr. Bergman is a big fan of kangaroo care:
“The more skin-to-skin, the better. It should ideally start at birth, but is helpful any time. Physiology and research provide overwhelming evidence that kangaroo mother care is not only safe but superior to the use of technology such as incubators.”
Dr. Bergman also said that depriving babies of direct skin contact creates alternative stress pathways in the brain which can cause ADD, colic, sleep disorders, and other health disorders.
Another study from 2017 found that lightly touching preterm infants in NICUs “may help establish the sensory building blocks of cognition, behavior, and communication.”
In plain English, human touch has the power to increase an infant’s brainpower and influence how the child acts, thinks, and feels.
We even use tactile expressions to describe the lack of emotional or physical connection when there is no skin-to-skin contact: such a person is “tactless.” If someone that was close has become distant, we say we “lost touch with” her or him. An uninformed individual is “out of touch.”
Touching someone on the arm when making a persuasive sales pitch communicates honesty, confidence, knowledge, and authority. Both men and women studied agreed that only a trustworthy person would touch them during a solicitous conversation.
Touching someone twice while asking for something increases the odds for agreement. This works better when a woman asks a man for a favor. In fact, some men hate being touched by other men so use your spidey-sense to gauge the situation.
In an experiment involving restaurant waitresses, two types of brief touch (on the hand or the shoulder) were tested on customers receiving their change. Either way, “Both tipping rates were significantly larger than a control, no-touch condition.”
By mere touch alone, we humans can identify anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy – even when we can’t see who is making skin contact.
Another interesting note is that when two people meet, the person with the higher social ranking or status decides whether or not touch will become part of the interchange. People of the same social stature touch to signal solidarity and acceptance.
Not getting enough skin-to-skin contact can lead people to develop “touch hunger,” a term coined by Dr Tiffany Field who directs the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami who believes that “When we experience a lack of physical contact, fundamental human needs are left unmet, particularly around our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Try out the power of human touch for yourself. See what happens when you consciously make skin contact with others around you. Feed the need to reach out and touch someone.
Just be aware that people respond to these unspoken messages differently and be sure to respect their interpersonal boundaries.