Touching is an important cue that indicates liking and acceptance.
Touch is so significant in our lives the lack of it can cause us to become ill or otherwise disordered. According to Sarah Trenholm, a communication professor at Ithaca College, “People deprived of touch may develop physical, mental, and social disorders. In fact, studies have linked touch deprivation to depression, alienation, and violence.” In talking about his recent book, Intimate Behavior: A Long Look At What Society Has Done to Our Need for Physical Contact with Other Members of the Same Species, anthropologist Desmond Morris chalks it up to our prenatal experience. “In a way, do you think man needs this contact because of the ‘uterine bliss’ we experience prior to birth? Certainly that’s part of it. The fact is that we do have total comfort inside the womb. There is one thing that intrigues me to no end about that, in the womb, experiencing this ‘total embrace.’”
Think about it. The first thing most parents want to do the moment their child is born is nestle the infant in their arms. Of course this has psychological implications for bonding, but researchers have also found that touching and stroking babies helps them grow. Child development specialist and nursing professor Susan Ludington carried out an experiment with 120 newborns demonstrating just that. The babies were given more than an hour and a half of extra stroking during the first three days of life. Surprisingly, they gained weight faster and performed motor movements earlier than expected. Fascinated by these findings, Ludington investigated why the stroked babies lost less of their birth weight than those who were not stroked. She found that the former had more glycogen in their bodies, a chemical that is important in energy and weight gain. Such rhythmic skin-to-skin stroking may enhance nerve development and has also been shown to be effective with premature infants.
“How complex we human beings are,” Ludington wrote in How to Have a Smarter Baby. “It’s a miracle that stimulating your baby’s sense of touch with gentle, rhythmic stroking definitely can enhance his digestive functioning and growth.” Perhaps cats, mares, and other mammals lick their newborns in part because touch provides stimulation that actually starts the heart and the digestive system in their offspring.
Sadly, the reverse is also true. Mortality rates during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries especially from a disease then called marasmus (which translated from Greek means “wasting away”) were devastating. Communication professors Ron Adler and Neil Towne note “In some orphanages the mortality rate [from this disorder] was nearly 100 percent. Even children from the most progressive homes, hospitals, and other institutions died regularly from the ailment….they hadn’t had enough touch and as a result they died.” Today this disorder is known as “failure to thrive.” Experts in this field estimate that 50 percent of the children who suffer from it do so because they have not received enough parental attention. We need look no further than the horrible scenes televised from orphanages in Romania and more recently from North Korea to understand the physical, emotional, and developmental devastation that lack of touch can wreak on a young child.
Touching is an important cue that indicates liking and acceptance. We know that even when it contradicts other nonverbal cues such as posture, position, and words, it still determines the total impact of the message. For instance, the phrase “I love you” devoid of loving touch will ring quite hollow. In short, touch is one of the most powerful ways to communicate.