Keep in touch
Our most important sense deserves more respect – and attention
By Vivienne O’Keeffe, AAD, PEA, CIBTAC
Published in Spa Life magazine’s Spring 2017 issue
Quick, what’s the largest organ in the body? Congratulations if you’re one of the few who got it right: our skin. And the organ’s size reflects its position amid the hierarchy of senses: our sense of touch is almost certainly our most important.
Think about it. With no sense of touch, we couldn’t walk, talk or even eat.
But our sense of touch is unusual in another way. Unlike smell, taste, hearing and sight, the sense of touch must be reciprocated. Without human contact, especially in the early stages of life, the consequences can be dire – as was tragically demonstrated in the 1940s by Austrian-American child psychiatrist René Spitz.
At that time, the theory of disease being spread by contact was still quite novel. Spitz gathered a group of babies from orphanages and from mothers in prison to see whether reduced human contact could lessen the incidence of disease. The babies were fed and clothed and kept warm and clean, but were not played with, handled, or held. Spitz thought human contact would risk exposing the children to hazardous infectious organisms. But what happened was that while the children’s physical needs were met, they became withdrawn and sickly, and lost weight. A great many died, and in tragic irony, exhibited a vast number of infections. In one institution where the experiment was being conducted, the mortality rate from measles was 40% compared to the national average of 0.5%. In the cleanest and most sterile institutions, the overall death rate was above 75%. (reported in Doug’s Diary – dougduncan.info)
Spitz had rediscovered that a lack of human contact and interaction is fatal to infants. We need touch, just as we need love.
In another example, premature newborns studied by researchers Klaus and Kennell who were carried, rocked and cuddled during their stay in a hospital nursery gained more weight, had fewer periods of non-breathing and better-functioning nervous systems than newborns who did not receive this level of attention. (Ashley Montagu – The Human Significance of the Skin)
For adults, our deep (and often unconscious) need for touch becomes more poignant with the loss of a loved one or pet, as our body aches to be held, touched and loved.
Only one body part connects us to another object during the act of touching, and that’s (you guessed it), the skin. Its vast network of tactile receptors reside on or just beneath its surface. Some areas of the body – fingertips, the tip of the tongue, the back of the neck, to name three – have more receptors than others, making them more sensitive. Ever notice how a tiny pinprick on your middle finger can hurt more than a gash in your knee? Or how fiendishly ticklish the back of your neck can be?
The effect of touch is two-way; when we touch we receive a sensation and we also give one. The very act of touching another means that we too are touched. The word “touch” in English carries both a physical and emotional connotation. “I was touched” can mean someone connected physically with me. Or it can mean someone did something so gentle or kind for me that I was moved emotionally.
When you touch a body, you touch the whole person – the intellect, the spirit and the emotions. Unseen energy is conveyed in every touch a human being makes. Massage is a gentle, formalized and well understood method of conveying touch therapy.
Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 2010 found that a single session of deep-tissue Swedish massage could cause biological changes such as significantly decrease levels of the hormones cortisol (involved with stress) and arginine vasopressin (which is linked to helping increase cortisol). In addition, levels of lymphocytes (white blood cells that are part of the immune system) were increased – which may suggest that therapeutic touch in the form of massage plays a vital role in strengthening our immunity, for example, increasing our ability to ward off the common cold.
In the same study, a group of volunteers who received lighter touch massage showed bigger decreases of adrenocorticotropic hormone (which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol) and greater increases in oxytocin (which is related to contentment) than the Swedish massage group. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone which acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Its levels rise when we hug or kiss someone we love, indicating this hormone’s vital role in pair bonding. According to Psychology Today online, “Prairie voles, one of nature’s most monogamous species, produce oxytocin in spades. This hormone is also greatly stimulated during sex, birth, breast feeding – the list goes on.”
Every act of touching is accompanied by an intention – an important factor in the success of therapeutic touch. For example, research shows that an acupuncturist believing in the healing power of the needles she places in the arm of a client will positively affect the outcome of the therapy – as much as will the positive belief of her client. (John Upledger, DO, OMM – Massage Today magazine).
Vivienne O’Keeffe, AAD, PEA, CIBTAC, Founder of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., has earned an international reputation as an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She specializes in working with owners to create profitable spas. As an international consultant she is highly skilled in developing unique product and treatment lines, as well as training programs. Vivienne has studied and trained extensively in the beauty and well-being arena and is a member of ISPA, Leading Spas of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012) and the Institute of Management Consultants USA (IMC USA). She is also a published author, having written a wide range of articles on developing and running a successful spa. Spa Profits Consulting Inc. is the only SpaExcellence certified consultancy in North America, and is committed to setting the standard for quality, successful spas on a global level. For more information call 604.921.6245 or email