Embodied language of touch: what we say to each other without words
Did you know that we have a neural network in our skin that is designed specifically to respond to human touch?
Our body is wired to touch and be touched. Touch is the first of the senses to develop in utero. Through touch, we not only get to know our environment but also ourselves. This is also called tactile perception. Nerve cells in the skin tell me where I am and where it is no longer me, as well as what the quality of “not me” is (warm, cold, smooth, rough, hard, soft, etc.). However, nerve fibers in the skin do not merely register the world around us - our body is also designed to respond to it. Social and emotional responsiveness to touch is so important to us biologically that the neuroreceptors reactive to it are present across virtually every centimeter of our skin.
The neuroscientist researching neurological and psychological mechanisms of touch and social relations H. B. Wasling, PhD says that specific nerve receptors in our skin, called C-tactile or CT afferents, are particularly responsive to light, slow-moving touch that is about 32° warm - closest to the human body temperature. Therefore, these skin afferents are programmed to respond to gentle, nurturing human touch. Instead of merely informing the somatosensory cortex in our brain that such an event has occurred (this function is performed by another type of neuroreceptors), CT afferents send signals to the insular cortex in the brain.
Why is this important to us? The insular cortex is a part of the brain that is particularly developed in humans compared to other mammals. However, extensive research of it started relatively recently. Through the vagus nerve and the spinal cord this part of our brain receives information about respiration, work of digestive system, immune and hormonal activity, pain, sexual arousal and more. Importantly, among other functions, it is also involved in the processes of our emotional equilibrium. When experiencing gentle touch, we receive information into this part of the brain that can signal pleasure and evoke feelings of safety and acceptance. In addition, CT afferents have pathways into the area of the brain that is responsible for social bonding. It is acknowledged that affective touch is of fundamental importance in building social connections and developing secure attachment.
Interpersonal nurturing touch has positive effects on health and the state of the nervous system. Research shows that C-tactile targeted stimulation slows down the heart rate in adults and infants, therefore indicating that it evokes specific central nervous system and autonomic response. Researchers hypothesize that people who are more responsive to touch and have a greater C - tactile perception index are more interested in being with others or more responsive to social interactions. Conversely, people with hypersensitivity to tactile sensations may experience nervous system overload when being gently touched and therefore avoid touch altogether. For such people, an alternative to light stroking could be strong, firm touches and compression - a touch of this quality can feel grounding and provide a sense of comfort and security.
Caresses are especially important for newborns and young children. Touch has been shown to directly affect brain development and shape the "social brain". It has also been observed that parents instinctively know how to touch infants and perform stroking at the speed that is preferred by the human nervous system. Research shows that social isolation of newborns postpartum causes emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disorders present even in adulthood. However, touch remains important regardless of age, and most people experience gentle stroking as pleasant, soothing and facilitating a sense of belonging.
We often don’t realize how much we communicate through touch in our daily lives (or used to before the coronavirus disease pandemic). M. J. Herenstein et al. published a study in 2009 stating that people have the ability to convey different emotions merely by touching each other. Research subjects aged 18 to 36 years have demonstrated an ability to effectively communicate different emotions and feelings — anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy — solely through touch, without those receiving touch seeing it happen. Recipients could decode the emotion transmitted via touch with accuracy as high as 78%. Moreover, subjects were also able to identify different emotions simply by observing people touching one another. Touch seems to be an even more effective way of conveying emotions than facial expressions or tone of voice. Many of us know from experience that pleasant touch strengthens relationships and promotes positive interactions between people, while unpleasant touch repels, alarms us, encourages us to fight, flight or freeze. Thus the importance of touch for us as social beings is undeniable.
Due to biological and psychological responsiveness to touch in humans, it’s therapeutic effects have long been recognized. Attuned, affective touch can reduce pain in patients, help to relieve tension, correct or alleviate various disorders, etc. In bodywork and movement therapy, we see the body and psyche as integral parts of a person, constantly interacting with each other. Back in the day, in his work "Physiognomonica" Aristotle wrote that a change in the psyche causes a change in the structure of the body, and conversely - a change in the structure of the body creates a change in the state of the psyche. Hence, when we touch the body, we inevitably touch the psyche as well. According to the psychotherapist and author of the books on body-mind healing C. W. Ford,, touch creates new patterns in the brain that enable us to create new images of ourselves. When we act on those images of our whole, integral self that we have created by experiencing therapeutic touch, we embody the healing process.
In the Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy, touch is one of the working methods we apply to establish contact with the body, read the signals it sends, hear it’s stories, and communicate with body systems. Through touch, a respectful, secure, supportive connection is created, which can awaken deep self-healing processes in the client, reveal that what is invisible, hidden but wants to be seen. Through touch and support, gently guiding particular movements, somatic therapy can facilitate re-patterning in both movement and body-mind, enabling us to find the most optimal and harmonious ways for us to be present in this world.
About the author
Jurga Bliss is located in Southern Portugal, she facilitates somatic therapy sessions for adults online in English and Lithuanian, as well as face to face sessions in the Algarve. She specializes in working with clients experiencing psychosomatic symptoms; autoimmune processes; issues with attachment, boundaries and other relationship challenges (in the family, partnerships, including LGBTQI + and non-normative forms of relationships); people interested in working with internal family (subpersonalities); sexuality issues; those facing difficulties of living abroad and in a multicultural environment, etc.
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