Getting in Touch

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The “power of touch” floods through Mercy High.

The "power of touch" floods through Mercy High.
The “power of touch” floods through Mercy High.

It is a well-researched fact that humans communicate in many different ways, through words, actions, looks, or posture.  It’s easy to not put much thought into how you interact with the people around you, but the way we communicate often shapes the way we connect and establish relationships.  One of the most universal means of communication, that doesn’t change despite who you are or what language you speak, is physical contact.  Random touches throughout the day such as a hug or pat on the back have proven to affect our well-being more than we may realize.

“It is the first language we learn, our richest means of emotional expression,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in his book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

The emotions we express through physical contact are not only important, but can also be communicated quicker and more accurately than words.

In a series of experiments led by Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, volunteers attempted to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger through only physical contact.  These volunteers were able to express eight definite emotions— anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—, some with up to 78 percent accuracy.

“I think that a hug can truly change someone’s mood,” said junior Abby Rosler. “I also think that a loving tap on the shoulder can make someone feel happier.”  Although it may seem farfetched, simple touches do have a real effect on people’s temperaments.

“Stimulating touch receptors under the skin can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress,” said Dr. Hertenstien in his article “The Communication of Emotion via Touch”.  This is usually because a warm touch from another person can set off a release of oxytocin, a hormone that creates a sense of security.

“My family had always been really big on giving each other kisses and hugging each other and we’ve proven to be a pretty strong family unit,” said junior Jacqueline Welday.

Being physically close to the people around you, not just your family, can often improve relationships, but unfortunately it seems to be becoming increasingly more uncommon.

“Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting,” said Dr. Hertenstein. “Compared with other cultures, we live in a touch-phobic society that’s made affection with anyone but loved ones taboo.”

It is possible that our aversion to physical contact is caused by a shrinking comfort zone, since behavioral scientists have found that Americans need about two to four feet more personal space in public than Europeans do to feel comfortable.  Because of this lessening tactile sense, it is important to be conscious of the ways and how often you touch the people around you.

“Whenever I see someone is sad, my very first instinct is to give them a hug before I even say anything to them,” said Welday.  Comforting other people through physical contact is a valuable way to build relationships, and receiving such comfort is just as beneficial.

There is much to be gained from being a touchy person, or merely being around one, especially when we keep in mind that physical contact not only improves our health, but also helps us connect better to the people in our lives.