The sense of touch is our most important sense for achieving behavioral well-being.
David J. Linden’s newest book, TOUCH: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, indicates that infants can develop normally without the capacity to see, hear or smell, but without experiencing positive touches or being able to perceive when they are touched, these children grow up emotionally and socially stunted.
To illustrate his claim, the author cites refugee children who spent their early childhoods in severely understaffed orphanages during the Bosnian War late last century. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization security forces, aided by U.S. bombing runs and a few on-ground militia, played a key role in bringing the ethnic genocide to a conclusion.
When the war ended and the orphaned children were finally moved into satisfactory rehabilitative facilities, the inadequately cared-for children were severely emotionally and intellectually deprived, and often physically underdeveloped as well.
The symptoms of deprivation of touching during early childhood can be reversed only by therapy incorporating regular touching that the children recognize, and even then the outcomes aren’t always what are hoped for. But daily lengthy sessions of manipulating children’s limbs make a positive difference, Linden says.
The benefits of “kangaroo care” for prematurely born human infants by their mothers was cited by Linden as further proof of the positive effects of touching. Kangaroo care involves mothers gently holding their underdeveloped newborns next to their chests for warmth and encouraging them to nurse.
Kangaroo care was instituted in some third world countries because premature newborn infants and those with complicated deliveries lacked access to incubators and were placed with their mothers who were given instructions about how to hold their infants and keep them warm.
The babies who experienced kangaroo care slept better, had fewer episodes of stress as indicated by their heart rates, developed more rapidly and achieved higher cognitive functioning later in life than similar infants who lacked such care.
There are at least five sensory pathways that involve touching: detection of pressure, temperature, pain, itching and tickling. Children who are born with inability to detect pain and temperature due to a rare genetic condition called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) can still feel pressure.
Children with CIPA are prone to injuring themselves until they learn to take proper precautions, such as avoiding heat, cold, or physical activities that cause bone fractures, like jumping from heights, but they usually develop into emotionally secure adults when lovingly cared for and caressed by their parents and others.
The findings cited by Linden concerning loving touches are reminiscent of the famous experiments undertaken by psychologist Harry Harlow during the 1930s concerning the development of attachment in monkeys. Harlow studied infant rhesus monkeys that were separated from their mothers and raised in isolation because it was thought this was a way to develop a pool of “standard” monkeys to conduct certain research projects, similar to how white laboratory rats are considered the “standard” for laboratory research using the Norway rat (rattus norvegicus).
The rhesus infants deprived of mothering grew up to be fearful and lacked the capacity to care for their own infants when they attained breeding age. When allowed to cling to terry-cloth doll-like objects, the rhesus infants developed more normally in a physical sense but they were not as well-adjusted socially and behaviorally as rhesus infant that were allowed to interact with their mothers or with other juvenile monkeys with whom they engaged in physical contact.
Ethical concerns about raising animals in isolation that are normally social beings have altered rearing procedures for monkeys and other laboratory animals since the 1930s, and partly because of Harlow’s findings.
Feeling warmth and succorance as infants, behavior scientists now say, is key to later healthy social and emotional adjustment for all species that have highly developed social behaviors, such as humans, primates, canines and many others.
Grooming behaviors, such as horses licking each other, affirm social bonds of animals just as hugs and kisses affirm attachments of humans.
Youngsters have keener ability to detect touches than older people, Linden noted. Even though the fingers and toes of a 20 year-old person are about four times as sensitive as those of an 80 year-old person, older people still engage in physical touches to affirm positive relationships with others.
Comforting physical touches, such as hand stroking, usually calm anxious persons, whereas painful physical events, such as beatings, trigger alarm and fear.
Linden points out that emotional pain affects some of the same neural pathways as physical pain. Warm caresses or physical maltreatment generates expectations about the world that become encoded into our DNA and can lead us and our progeny to look at the world as a loving or fearful place, says Linden.
In her review of Linden’s book for American Scientist, Katie Burke sums it up: "The sense of touch is fundamental to our health and well-being as well as vital to our understanding of the human condition.”
Readers may contact Dr. Rosmann at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.