Skin hunger is a relatively new term that has been applied to the emotional response engendered by the loss of touch in our society. During WW II, babies in orphanages failed to thrive and even died when deprived of human contact. In a classic study by Harry Harlow, newborn monkeys were taken from their biological mothers and given surrogates made of either wire or soft terry cloth. The baby monkeys consistently chose the soft mother even when deprived of nourishment. The need for bonding outweighed even the basic necessity of food.
Physical affection is very important because
wholesome touching puts us more in touch
with the more beautiful parts of ourselves.
The hunger for touch is a real human need. And though touch is physical, it provides sustenance and anchoring for our emotional, mental and spiritual selves. This is totally true for babies and only slightly less so for adults even though they have become accustomed to a world and life of cutaneous deprivation.
The hunger for touch is related to our hunger for food. And just as intimacy can be seen differently from love and sex, though we often combine the two, touch also is an activity in and of itself and can be a wholly satisfying experience, as people who give and receive massage well know. The most important way we give love to a baby is through touch.
Clinically, cutaneous deprivation (the lack of touch), leads to a host of emotional, physical and developmental problems in the young and old alike. Research has shown that there are distinct biochemical differences between people who experience touch and those who are severely deprived of it. Baby monkeys who are raised without comforting, nurturing touch do not have that source of security and assurance and they are easily overwhelmed by new experiences. Placed in an unfamiliar environment without a sense of safety, they simply collapse in hysterical screams. They cannot cope with challenging or threatening situations the same way that their touched and comforted buddies can.
I have been using a form of Therapeutic Healing Touch for five
months with noticeable results. My autistic son now asks me for “touch”
when he can’t calm himself, or when he has a headache or isn’t feeling
well. He nearly always wants my hands placed on his forehead.
Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, describes a study in which children who received massage twice a week showed decreased amounts of depression. They also had significantly less anxiety than the study’s control group. Dr. Field says, “The first sensory input in life comes from the sense of touch while a baby is still in the womb, and touch continues to be the primary means of learning about the world throughout infancy, well into childhood. Touch is critical for children’s growth, development, and health, as well as for adults’ physical and mental wellbeing. Yet American society is dangerously touch-deprived.”
Touch deprivation and somasthetic stress (e.g., pain and “touch trauma”) are rapidly followed by dramatic elevations in pituitary-adrenal plasma cortisol levels, while affectionate and soothing touch are associated with low serum plasma cortisol levels. Plasma cortisol levels have been shown to be a reliable physiological indicator of an organism’s detection of environmental change or stress. Further, it has been shown that with chronic imbalances of plasma cortisol and other hormones and neurochemicals, abnormal brain tissue development as well as the destruction of previously normal brain tissue results. In other words, frequent pleasurable touch results in positive changes in brain tissue, and chronic touch deprivation or trauma results in measurably significant brain damage.
Hospitalized patients recover more rapidly from injury, physical or psychiatric illness when attention is paid to their need for touch. A person’s sense of self apparently originates in body awareness, body functions, and body activities that center around the sense of touch.