You Feel Me? The Science Of Being Touched (& Why It's So Good For You)

Sharp. Painful. Orgasmic. Comforting. Touch can be any of these things. But, it’s much more than one of the classic five senses; it’s fundamental to everything we think and feel, how we communicate and bond, and whether or not we catch a cold.
It all starts in the bottom layer of our skin. There, a series of informational conveyor belts, called Merkel cells, feed data from the skin to the body’s central nervous system. The body then responds with a surge of hormones. And, if you’re receiving the right kind of touch — as opposed to a creepy one or a punch in the nose — you'll get a dose of oxytocin, the aptly named “cuddle hormone.”
The results are palpable. Spearheaded by labs throughout the country that are dedicated to the science of touch, a slew of new studies are proving that touch — gentle, empathetic, and supportive — comes with incredible emotional and physical health benefits. “Touch is our body’s largest and the oldest sense," says Jeanne AbateMarco, MS, RN, CNS, clinical nurse coordinator of the Department of Integrative Health Programs at NYU Langone Medical Center. "It’s a channel of communication. It’s integral to the human experience.”
But, no two touches are the same. Read on to learn how touch — from your partner, best friend, personal trainer, MD, massage therapist, Fido, or robot (if you’re into that) — affects your health.
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Your Pet

There’s a reason we pet our pets. “It’s part of our biology and evolution,” says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Animal-Human Bond at Purdue University. Touching animals can immediately boost your body’s levels of oxytocin.

But, touching an animal does have one major benefit over touching another homo sapiens: It’s pressure-free. “You don’t have to worry about the animal judging you,” Dr. Beck says. “It’s truly a relaxed touch.” Case in point: One study found that when performing an anxiety-riddled task, people are actually less stressed if their pets are present instead of a spouse, family member, or close friend.

Pet ownership is known to lower people’s stress levels and blood pressure, while improving their immunity. (FYI, when you pet them, animals’ levels of oxytocin also increase, and their heart rate and blood pressure drop.) Pet owners visit the doctor less often and feel more secure than people who don’t have pets, Dr. Beck says.

Hence why animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is on the rise. Animals are making more and more appearances in hospitals, and research from Loyola University shows that receiving pet therapy can help post-op patients recover with less than half the pain medication needed by those who don’t have an animal by their side. Meanwhile, patients — and even their vital signs — report significant improvements in pain, mood, and other distress measures after a therapy-animal visit.

Of course, if your apartment is too small for a pet (or if you get stuffed up at the mere thought of dog dander), you can always just visit the petting zoo or get an iguana. You’ll still reap the feel-good rewards, Dr. Beck says.
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Your Massage Therapist

Sometimes, your body wants more than a light, casual touch; it wants someone to dig deep. By “touching" not only your skin, but also your muscles and connective tissues, massage is able to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It also improves sleep quality and eases pain. Research from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center even found that massage strengthens the immune system by increasing the body’s number of lymphocytes (white blood cells that help defend the body from disease).

Plus, if you’re a fitness aficionado, massage could hold even more benefit: Research published in Science Translational Medicine shows that short, 10-minute massage sessions can reduce post-workout muscle inflammation, which can help your muscles recover and boost your fitness results.

“The power of touch can relax, take away stress...[it] has incredible healing effect,” says Lori Ellis, a licensed massage therapist who visits businesses and hospitals alike to massage those in need of touch. “Clients form a trust with their therapist.” Indeed, the relationship between a massage therapist and client is unique; it’s founded on touch, but the touch really only goes one way. The therapist encourages you to focus on the feeling of each touch, potentially making you more aware of it than any other touch in your daily life. Plus, he or she addresses areas of the body that others may not regularly touch (i.e. your stomach or your feet).

Qualified massage therapists are trained to navigate this relationship, helping you to relax both physically and emotionally throughout the process. You can find a licensed massage therapist near you by visiting the American Massage Therapy Association.
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Designated Cuddlers

Don’t have someone to hug, snuggle, and cuddle? Technology is on it. Cuddlr, a location-based app for people in need of a good cuddle, helps you find, meet up, and cuddle with other touch-seeking people in your area. If two potential snuggle buddies approve each other within a 15-minute window, you can then message each other about where to meet up.

However, in the future, you might be able to turn to specially designed cuddle robots instead of a stranger. For instance, a few years ago, one German designer created a conceptual shape-changing body pillow as a part of his graduate thesis. The Funktionide, as it’s called, contains sensors that make it respond to any sort of human touch or pressure by cuddling back. Likewise, Japan’s churned out its fair share of hugging-robot prototypes, such as the Sense-Roid (in which both you and a mannequin torso wear vests that inflate and vibrate when pressed together) and the Hugvie (a person-shaped pillow that connects to your phone and vibrates faster and stronger depending on the caller’s voice pitch and volume).

These cuddle-bots might not be as crazy as they sound. In one Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience study, people rated a brush on the arm as similarly pleasant whether it came from a robot or hand. Until everyone's got a bot, your worn-down teddy is a good surrogate. Research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that kids who had their security blankets with them at the doctor's office experienced lower heart rates and blood pressure compared to those without a cuddly item. And, the need to hold onto something lasts into adulthood, says AbateMarco, who notes that even Alzheimer's patients are calmer when they have a pillow or stuffed animal to clutch. Perhaps it’s time for a search-and-rescue mission through your parents’ attic.

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Your Partner

Sex does a relationship good. In fact, couples that gratify each other’s sexual needs are 65 percent more likely to be content in their coupling than those who don’t, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy that looked at heterosexual couples. Sex triggers the release of oxytocin and feel-good dopamine, promoting intimacy and bonding.

But, get this: So does kissing sans sex, according to one survey by University of Washington sociology professor Pepper Schwartz, PhD You don’t have to try to break any high school records, but making out for the sake of simply that — rather than as a segue into sexy time — can actually bring you closer. “It shows attraction and connection, not just that you need to scratch an itch,” she says.

Meanwhile, even couples that “platonically” touch tend to be more satisfied than those who don’t, says AbateMarco. In one 2013 study, for instance, Swiss researchers found that daily touch between partners increases their feelings for each other. Hold his hand while you walk, touch her back as you pass by, cuddle up next to him on the couch, she says.

And, if you’re having a difficult conversation, argument, or full-on fight, try a hand on the knee, she says. It makes people more likely to cooperate with each other. The brain’s prefrontal lobe, which regulates emotion and help problem-solve interprets gentle touches as “I’ll share the load.” And as most relationship therapists will tell you, relationships are all about “we.”

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Your Doctor

A lot of the touches between doctors and patients (like that Pap smear you’ve been meaning to schedule) are less-than-pleasant. But, more and more doctors are trying to turn that around, using touch to actually soothe their patients.

Why? A 2013 study in the Journal of Participatory Medicine shows that when doctors touch their patients in a social, I’m-on-your-side way, patients think of them as more empathetic — a characteristic that is actually linked with better health outcomes. For instance, researchers found that perceived doctor empathy actually decreases patients’ sensitivity to pain. “Physicians are becoming more aware of how important touch is to their practice, and not just when diagnosing,” AbateMarco says.

What’s more, touch is starting to become a form of medicine in its own right. Modalities such as Therapeutic Touch (TT) and Reiki — both of which are modernized, religion-free versions of “a laying on of hands” — use simple touch (or sometimes just holding the hands a few inches above the skin) to complement patients’ traditional therapies for conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and anxiety, says AbateMarco. And, traditional medicine is backing this up. As research has affirmed the effectiveness of touch-based therapies — one Wichita State University study found that six weeks of TT significantly reduced fibromyalgia patients’ pain — hospitals are increasingly giving touch practitioners hospital privileges to work with patients.
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Your Personal Trainer

Drop your hips, pull in your abs, lift your chest, fire through your glutes. “There’s only so much verbal cueing that a client can understand and process at one time," says personal trainer Mike Donavanik, CSCS, CPT. "Touching allows me to bring my clients’ focus to exactly where it should be and fast-track that cognitive process for them.”

But, touch can also help your trainer push you to the next level in a whole other way. “I’ll never forget," Donavanik says, "early in my career, an instructor told me: ‘Don’t underestimate the power of touch. We’re always so guarded, and touching enables us to bring that guard down and connect with another individual.' Touching allows both parties to...put their trust in another person.”

In fact, when scientists recorded every bump, hug, and high-five swapped between NBA players, they found that the best teams and players touched the most. (To rule out the possibility that teams simply touched because they were winning, researchers rated performance based how efficiently they managed the ball compared to points or wins.) It all comes down to trust.

“Teams and players who trust their teammates — which is what I believe is measured by assessing levels of touch — will work hard to cover their teammates mistakes...and expend extra energy in the service of their shared goals,” says study author Michael W. Kraus, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He notes that this trust effect can extend to any team, which is exactly what a client-personal trainer relationship is.

Similarly, when a personal trainer touches you, you feel emotional connection with that person, making you want to do anything but slack off in front of him or her. Plus, you’re less likely to miss a session when you feel that you have someone trusting and relying on you to show up. “Both parties come into an agreement of sorts," Donavanik says. "The client understands that the trainer is doing their best to help him or her, and the trainer understands that the client is working to accomplish the task at hand.”

Not the touchy type? A good trainer will probably pick up on that, Donavanik says. But, if they seem pretty clueless to your body language, it’s perfectly okay to ask them to take a less-hands-on approach.
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Your Best Friend

If you’re reading this from a U.S. IP address, chances are you don’t touch your friends enough. Back in the '60s, one of the first and only studies to examine touch between buddies studied pairs of friends from around the world having conversations in cafes. In England, the two friends touched each other zero times over the course of their discussion. In the United States, twice. In France, 110 times. In Puerto Rico, 180 times.

Additional research suggests that the more you bond with your friends, the better off you’ll be. In a study of 1,477 70-somethings, Australian researchers found that people with the most friends lived seven years longer than did loners. And, as one PLoS Medicine study points out, having a lackluster social life is as bad (if not worse) for your health as more well-known risky behaviors.

Have more Facebook friends than real-life ones? Start investing in your social health the same way you prioritize planks and kale — or, there's always a cuddling robot.