In the 13th century, Germany’s King Frederick II came up with a diabolical study to find out if children would learn to speak if they weren’t spoken to. He wanted to prove that they would naturally speak German.
For the research, Frederick took babies from their mothers at birth and placed them under the care of nurses. The nurses were strictly forbidden from speaking to the babies or even in their hearing. Frederick also imposed a second rule: the nurses weren’t allowed to unnecessarily touch the infants.
But to Frederick’s disappointment, the study had to be cut short because all the babies died. In 1248, an Italian historian named Salimbene di Adam observed: “They could not live without petting.”
In an increasingly touch-averse world, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, we can forget the power of physical touch. But as evidence shows, touch deprivation can have far-reaching, negative health implications.
Health benefits of touch
Kisses, hugs, holding hands and pets have profound health benefits for both the giver and the receiver.
Various studies have shown that touch signals safety and trust, soothing our anxieties. In a 2006 study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants getting a painful blast of white noise while laying in an fMRI scanner showed heightened brain activity usually linked to responding to threat and stress. However, participants who had their romantic partner stroking their arm didn’t show this reaction at all. Basically, touch switched off their threat response, making them less anxious.
How? This effect can be explained by the fact that physical touch triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin. These are two neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood as well as relieve stress and anxiety. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, patients with breast cancer showed an increase in dopamine and serotonin levels after receiving massage therapy.
Various studies by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine show that touch can help boost natural killer cells that attack bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. In a 2015 set of studies, touch was shown to boost the immune systems of people who had been exposed to the common cold. After exposing the participants to the virus, researchers found that the people who had more touch from their social interactions battled infection more effectively and exhibited fewer signs of illness.
Touch has been shown to increase the time spent in restorative deep stages of sleep. This leads to other health benefits, including stress reduction, lower heart rates and lower blood pressure.