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As humans, we are innately social animals. Fostering strong social connections through communication is one of our most distinguishing characteristics. When you think about this kind of communication, verbal conversation and body language come to mind, but what about touch? Touch is very powerful and scientists are finding it has all kinds of benefits.
First, here's a bit of background on our sense of touch. It starts in our skin, transmitted to the spinal cord and brain by primary afferent axons. Slow nerve fibers transmit signals to the insular cortex in the brain, which also processes taste, pain, and emotions. Information travels through these nerves at varying speeds, depending on the thickness of the thickness of the nerve fiber. A-nerve fibers are insulated with myelin, making them thicker and faster. C-nerve fibers, on the other hand, have no myelin.
More and more research indicates that touch is really good for us, too. Positive touch sensations release oxytocin, a hormone closely linked to feelings of happiness. A recent study showed that romantic partners who hug one another have higher levels of oxytocin in their bloodstreams as well as lower levels of stress. In addition, applying gentle amounts of pressure on certain censors called Pacinian corpuscles has been linked to lower heartbeat rate and blood pressure.
There's also a great deal of research out there indicating maternal touch is incredibly important in physical and emotional development. In the 1950's, Harry Harlow led a team at the University of Wisconsin to study the importance of caregiving and companionship in relation to cognitive development. In one famous study, Harlow examined how baby monkeys responded to two different maternal stand-ins. One had a bottle of milk and the other was covered in terry cloth, but had no bottle. The monkeys overwhelmingly chose the "contact comfort" from the terry cloth one, opting for physical contact over food.
What questions do you have about the human body? Any other senses you want to see discussed here? Let us know in the comments below.
The Power of Touch (via Psychology Today)
"Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship. Here's how to regain fluency in your first language."
That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life (via The Inquisitive Mind)
"Ever had cold feet at night? People had a remarkable solution to this problem in the Middle Ages."
The Experience of Touch: Research Points to a Critical Role (via The New York Times)
Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch (via NPR)
"Social scientists have shown in many studies over the years that supportive touch can have good outcomes in a number of different realms."