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The sophisticated language of touch

By Timothy Cocks Uncategorized 27 Oct 2020

Fantastic piece in Aeon from Laura Crucianelli on touch

The need to touch

“Looking after another human being almost inevitably involves touching them – from the very basic needs of bathing, dressing, lifting, assisting and medical treatment (usually referred to as instrumental touch), to the more affective tactile exchanges that aim to communicate, provide comfort and offer support (defined as expressive touch). Research in osteopathy and manual therapy, where practitioners have been working closely with neuroscientists on affective touch, suggests that the beneficial effect of massage therapy goes well beyond the actual manoeuvre performed by the therapist. Rather, there is something special simply in the act of resting one’s hands on the skin of the client. There is no care, there is no cure, without touch…”

“Science is now beginning to provide an account of why touch matters so much. Touch on the skin can reduce heartrate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – all factors related to stress – in both adults and babies. It facilitates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that provides sensations of calm, relaxation and being at peace with the world. Every time we hug a friend or snuggle a pet, oxytocin is released in our body, giving us that feel-good sensation. In this way, oxytocin appears to reinforce our motivation to seek and maintain contact with others, which assists in the development of humans’ socially oriented brains. Oxytocin also plays a vital role in the relationship we have with ourselves…”

“It’s not an exaggeration to talk of touch as a kind of language – one that we learn, like spoken language, through social interactions with our loved ones, from the earliest stages of our life. We use touch every day to communicate our emotions, and to tell someone that we are scared, happy, in love, sad, sexually aroused and much more…”

“In the current environment, is the idea of a ‘renaissance of touch’ just for the brave and the foolish? I don’t believe so, and scientific evidence speaks loud and clear. We lose a lot by depriving ourselves of touch. We deprive ourselves of one of the most sophisticated languages we speak; we lose opportunities to build new relationships; we might even weaken existing ones. Through deteriorating social relationships, we also detach from ourselves. The need for people to be able to touch one another should be a priority in defining the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. A better world is often just a hug away. As a scientist, but also as a fellow human, I claim the right to touch, and to dream of a reality where no one will be touchless.”

A beautifully written piece, if you haven’t already, click the link and read the whole thing. It had me reflecting on the commodification of touch by the many different systems of ‘manual therapy’, as well as the constant snarking between proponents of these systems that essentially boils down to “my (specific, complicated, exclusive, protected, expensive etc etc) touch is better than your (specific, complicated, exclusive, protected, expensive etc etc) touch”. The things we can convince ourselves of…

-Tim Cocks


  1. I never miss an opportunity for a hug even in these testing times as I feel more potential damage occurs without…….

  2. Mandi Ward

    I so appreciate this piece as a physical therapist. I often feel like the soft tissue manual therapy work that I do that is considered “the basics” (because I do not have “ specific, complicated, exclusive, protective, expensive” expertise in this particular area) it’s not good enough maybe by colleagues or industry standards. In some ways we’ve gotten to the point where we can talk ourselves out of touching a patient because we don’t have the correct type of “touching hands“ backed by a certificate and extensive education. I know this piece written above to be true: Touch, any touch is either healing for the soul, mind, or body. It’s either healing for all three or even just one component. And if my basic skills did not bring healing to the exact body part I touched, my hope is that I brought healing to the mind or to the soul. The patient comes to me with pain in a particular part of their body, I have moved to practicing whole person care. I’ve never had a patient complain that I’m taking care of all of them instead of one tiny piece of them. And many times I’ve ridden that “touch” wave of satisfaction in my care for that patient.

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