Hospital Visits Cut and Emotional Stress Eased by Physical Touch


In recent years researchers who study the effects of physical touch have gathered increasing evidence supporting the idea that touch can soothe emotional stress, heal the body and cut down on the need for hospital visits. As human beings, the first interaction received is that which occurs in the hospital when one leaves the womb, making touch essentially the first language that is learned.

Evidence is growing in the support of the idea that touch can lead to immediate changes in how people feel, including its effect on physical ailments that would, otherwise, require a hospital visit. One research study conducted to determine the power of touch was done by Dacher Keltner, researcher at University of California, Berkeley. Keltner conducted years of cutting-edge research looking to identify ways in which forms of touch bring individual emotional balance and better health. He found that everyday touches, such as a pat on the back or caress of the arm, can have an effect that is far more impactful than is typically acknowledged.

Keltner built a research lab with then-student and now-professor at DePauw University Matt Herenstein. The study was designed to explore the communicative abilities of physical  touch to transmit emotions, making it a potential tool for increasing vitality, reducing stress and reducinghospital visits. They conducted the experiment with multiple test subjects separating two strangers by barrier in the lab and had one person put their arm through the barrier and wait. The other was provided with a list of emotions they were to try to convey through a touch lasting for only one second to the stranger’s arm. The person being touched was to guess what emotion was being conveyed.

They determined that the probability of guessing the emotion correctly, given the number options that were provided to the stranger who was administering the touch, was only an 8 percent chance of occurrence. Contrarily, results for the accuracy rate of the emotion of compassion was correctly guessed approximately 60 percent of the time. Feelings such as fear, love, gratitude, and anger were correctly guessed  50 percent of the time. One surprising finding of the study was the difference between gender communication. During the repeated tests, when a woman communicated the emotion of anger to a man, he got it wrong, all the time. Additionally, when a man communicated compassion to a woman, she had no idea what was happening.

In the 1960s, psychologist Sidney Jourard discovered that in conversations around the world, the presence of touch had hugely varying statistics. His experiment involved observing conversations among friends who were sitting in a café together. He observed each for the same amount of time and found that in England, two friends having a conversation never touched one another at all. In the U.S., during moments of enthusiasm, friends touch one another twice. In France, the number was 110, and in Puerto Rico friends touched one another 180 times.

Given the litigious nature of society in America, the contrast in numbers is not surprising. However, consideration may need to be given to the effect that separation creates, particularly if touch has the ability to prevent illness and reduce hospital stays. Given this theory, it may prove critical to learn what exactly may be lost when people are holding back. The way the body feels when receiving positive-intent touch will be the most accurate measurement of its effect. In the meantime, studies will continue to make revelations regarding physical touch and its ability to cut down hospital visits and ease emotional stress.

Opinion by Bridgette Bryant

Greater Good Berkeley
New York Times

Photo by Riccardo Cuppini – Flickr license

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