Power of Touch

While it is not new information that touch signals safety and trust, you may not be aware of the extent that it benefits your health such as calming cardiovascular stress. Western cultures are pretty touch-deprived, and this applies in particular to the United States. However, research has demonstrated repeatedly the benefits of touch. For example, Dacher Keltner a faculty of Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkley, has spent years immersed in the science of touch and believes that touch is the primary language of compassion.

His research has found that people can identify and differentiate the emotions of love, gratitude, and compassion from contact (Hertenstein et al., 2009). Another study found that the power of touch begins with infants. This research revealed that preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical treatment (Field, et al., 2007; Field, et al., 2009).

Researchers have also found a strong connection between touching and performance. For example, a professor of a 120-person statistics class was instructed to give the same verbal encouragement to students who volunteered to solve a problem at the front of his classroom. At the same time, the professor was instructed to give a randomly selected group of students within the class a slight tap on the upper arm when speaking to them.

Gueguen compared the volunteer rate of those who were touched to those who were not and found that students who were contacted were significantly more likely to volunteer again. In fact, roughly 28 percent of those who were touched volunteered again, compared with about 9 percent of those who were not. While Gueguen understands the need for caution around touching in the school setting, these findings suggest that as we define rules and limits for contact, we need to consider the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers (Gueguen, 2004).

Touch can even have economic effects through promoting trust and generosity. When psychologist Robert Kurzban had participants play a game, in which they could choose either to cooperate or to compete with a partner for a limited amount of money, an experimenter gently touched some of the participants as they were starting to play the game—just a quick pat on the back. Those who were touched were much more likely to cooperate and share with their partner (Zak, et al., 2005)

The suggestion here is not that you should turn around and grope your neighbor or invade the personal space of everyone around you. It just means that it is worth evaluating whether or not you need to add to more touch to your life. The science is pretty convincing that we are wired to connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts (Kraus, 2010).

One way to start enjoying the benefits of touch is to add more hugs to your life. Oxytocin released by your pituitary gland which occurs naturally in the body has incredibly powerful, health-giving properties. It is also a key reason the simple act of hugging is such a powerful way to bond with others while improving your physical and emotional health.

Psychotherapist Virginia Satir also famously said: "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”


Hertenstein, M. J., Holmes, R., McCullough, M., & Keltner, D. (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion, 9(4), 566.

Field, Tiffany, Diego, Miguel, Hernandez, Maria (2007). Massage therapy research. Developmental Review, 27(1), 75-89.

Field, Tiffany, Hernandez-Reif, Maria, Diego, Miguel, Schanberg, Saul, & Kuhn, Cythnia. (2009). Cortisol Decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine Increase following Massage Therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115 (10).

Kraus, Michael, Huang, Cassy, & Keltner, Dachter (2010). Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA. Emotion, 10 (5), 745-749.

Guegun, Nicholas. (2004). Nonverbal encouragement of participation in a course: the effect of touching. Social Psychology of Education, 7(1), 89-98.

Zak, Paul, Zurban, Robert, & Matzner, William (2005). Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness. Hormones and Behavior, 48(5), 522-527.


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