From the moment we take our first gasps of air, we hunger for touch. And out of all our senses, touch is the only one that does not decrease with age. From the cradle to the grave, we never lose the power of touch.
But what happens when you are deprived of physical touch?
To answer this question, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted some ethically disturbing experiments. Using baby Rhesus monkeys as his test subjects, he isolated the newborns for months in a dark, windowless cage he called the “pit of despair.”
When the monkeys were released from isolation, they were mentally deranged. Some just rocked back in forth and refused food. Others were aggressive and attacked the other monkeys. Many self-mutilated by tearing out their hair and biting their legs. All lost their ability to socialize.
In another experiment, he gave the isolated baby monkeys a wire surrogate mother and a terry-cloth mother. The wire monkey mother fed the babies milk through a bottle-feeding mechanism. The terry-cloth mother provided no milk but was soft and cuddly.
Guess which fake mother the monkeys preferred?
The terry-cloth mother won over and over again despite not providing nourishment. Harlow theorized that touch offers more security than food.
Harlow could not experiment on humans for obvious reasons. But the monkey’s reaction mirrored a condition found in human infants called hospitalism.
In 1897, Dr. Floyd Crandall called hospitalism a disease “more deadly than pneumonia or diphtheria.” At the time, the death rate of babies from marasmus — a wasting away without a known cause — was staggering. Dr. Crandall observed that the better the hospital, the more likely an infant would die. Consequently, the babies born into unhygienic, smaller, and poorer hospitals had few marasmus cases.
After much experimentation, Dr. Crandall finally figured out why. The babies born into affluent hospitals were placed in incubators and deprived of touch. In the smaller hospitals, the nurses took turns holding and rocking the babies.
Dr. Crandall discovered what would change the course of neonatal care.
Without human touch, we die.
“To touch can be to give life.” — Michelangelo
The importance of touch
Adults need just as much touch as babies. Humans are a pair-bonding species. When we touch, we release oxytocin — the hormone that causes us to bond with our partner. Research shows that new romantic couples release more oxytocin. The reason is simple. They touch more.
Other cultures understand the power of touch better than Americans. The French greet friends and acquaintances with a kiss on either side of the cheek. (Although this may have stopped during the pandemic.) The Japanese have “cuddle cafes” where you can sleep with a stranger. (Sex is not involved.)
And sorry, that old saying about cold hands and warm heart is not true. Research shows the warmer the climate you live in, the more you touch.
But touch not only increases intimacy. It is also tied to your health.
Some health reasons to hug it out:
- Couples who touch regularly have reduced cortisol levels, which spikes when under stress.
- Touching reduces respiratory illnesses.
- Touching strengthens your vagus nerve — the bundle of nerves that runs from your cranial nerve to your heart, lungs, and abdomen. Research shows a healthy vagus nerve leads to more compassion and intimacy.
Consequently, being touch starved — called skin hunger — has long term health consequences. Those that lack human contact suffer from more anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.
Luckily, expressing love through touch is simple. You can give your partner a massage, a hug, a long kiss, or spend the day in bed deliciously naked.
But some people hate to be touched. This can be a learned behavior from childhood, or it can be due to anxiety and self-confidence. Others have suffered trauma and abuse.
You will need to go slow with these people. Just because they are not willing to hug the mailman doesn’t mean they are not open to intimate touch. Remember that even standoffish folks need to be touched. They just need to feel a greater level of safety when doing so.
Physical touch is not a language. It’s your ability to speak.
Why physical touch is not a love language.
In 1992, Gary Chapman wrote his best-selling book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chapman outlines five ways we express and experience love. They are:
- Words of Affirmation — Listening, encouraging, and appreciating our partner. You know how to give a great compliment.
- Receiving Gifts — Small, thoughtful tokens of appreciation. Examples could include flowers, your partner’s favorite dessert, or warm, fuzzy socks.
- Quality Time — Uninterrupted conversation and mindful time spent together without distractions. Examples could include a walk in the park or a weekend getaway.
- Acts of Services — Doing chores that help your partner. Examples could include taking out the trash, making them breakfast in bed, or fixing that leaky faucet.
- Physical Touch — Nonverbal body language. Hugs, touches, caresses, kisses, and sex.
If your partner never compliments you (Words of Affirmation), will you die? Nope. You might feel unloved, but you will survive.
Physical touch is not a language. It’s your ability to speak. If we didn’t touch, the human race would die out.
To be clear, I am not dismissing The Five Love Languages. It’s a wonderful tool to understand your partner’s needs. But touch is a drive. It’s a drive as necessary as food and shelter. Putting physical touch in the same category as taking out the trash is like saying you want a man who cooks, but you don’t care if you ever eat again.
So next time your partner says they are not in the mood, just remind them that you are keeping them alive.
This article was originally published on PS I Love You. Relationships Now.