Staying in Touch

Maternal bonding: oxytocin is present while amother interacts with her baby. Photo courtesy of Young Parent Child Care Program.

Humans can express a wide range of emotions from anger to love. These emotions can be transmitted through means such as words, tones of voice, or facial expressions. One medium that remains largely unexplored, however, is tactile communication. Studies have shown that a pat on the back or a high-five can robustly communicate these same emotions, sometimes even more accurately than words can.

DePauw University Professor Matthew Hertenstein conducted a study encompassing a wide range of emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and love. In this experiment a two-person group was formed between an encoder and a blindfolded decoder. The encoder was given a feeling to transmit to the decoder using any type of physical contact. The results were astonishing: all feelings were transmitted with an accuracy ranging from 50% to 80%. In addition, this study showed that the tactile signaling system is more differentiated than the vocal and facial systems. For example, facial expressions only reliably convey joy, and in some cases, sympathy, but Hertenstein’s study demonstrated that touching conveyed love and gratitude as well. The greater variety available with touching explains this phenomenon: touch can vary in its action (patting, rubbing, etc.), intensity (amount of pressure applied), velocity, location, abruptness, and duration. In this study, holding and squeezing communicated fear, whereas sympathy was communicated by holding the other, patting, and rubbing.

Professional athletes who “touch” seem to perform better. Photo courtesy of Yankee Blue.

Dr. Tiffany Field, from the University of Miami School of Medicine, performed a study in which “touch therapy” served as a way to enhance autistic children’s attention spans. Autism is a condition in which patients fail to communicate and interact well with others. The touch therapy consisted of massaging a child’s face, chest, stomach, leg, foot, arms, and back for 15 minutes twice a week for a period of four weeks. Afterwards, the children were administered a series of tests on behavior and communication skills, and the children who received this therapy showed significantly higher scores than the control group. This improvement has been attributed to the increase of vagal activity, which has been associated with “increased attention span.” The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve responsible for regulating heart rate and blood pressure. Even though parents have difficulty communicating with their autistic children using words, touch therapy seems like an efficient alternative. Parents can thus help their children achieve higher scores and perform better in school settings through encouragement by touch.

One specific human response to touching is the release of a hormone responsible for stimulating trust. Dr. Ray Sahelian of Drexel University claims that a positive interaction involving touch increases the levels of oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin is a peptide hormone composed of nine amino acids secreted by the posterior pituitary. This hormone binds to different receptors in the brain regulating sexual drive, fear, trust, and other basic emotions. Dr. Thomas Baumgartner, a scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, performed an experiment in which the subjects were told to invest or keep a certain amount of money. Subjects were separated into two groups: the experimental group, which received intranasally administered oxytocin, and the control group, which received the placebo substance. During the first round of this “trust game,” subjects lost a considerable amount of the money they invested. Then, during the second round they were asked if they wanted to invest again. When faced with this social risk, subjects who received the placebo responded with a decrease in trusting behavior. On the other hand, subjects who received oxytocin demonstrated no change in their trusting behavior. The study concluded that “oxytocin specifically affected individuals’ willingness to take social risks.”

The physical complexity of touch is likely what allows for such a differentiated signaling system. Professional athletes, autistic children, a mother with her child, and romantic couples all have something in common.They all employ the tactile language. However, this form of communication is still largely unexplored. Even though a considerable amount of progress has been made in this area, scientists continue to explore this field, observing more hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, to fully decode the tactile language.

A high five can express feelings of support, friendship, and happiness. Photo courtesy of AZ Central.