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Discouraging Touch Comes with a Cost, Prof. Matt Hertenstein Writes in Providence Journal

March 23, 2009

herteinstein_infant.jpgMarch 23, 2009, Greencastle, Ind. — As Americans, writes Matthew J. Hertenstein, "we need to ask ourselves: What is the cost of forbidding or discouraging touch across so many domains of society? Given the overwhelming evidence that touch powerfully and positively regulates our physiology and behavior, the data suggest the cost is quite high." Dr. Hertenstein, associate professor of psychology at DePauw University, offers his thoughts in an op-ed published in the Providence Journal.

"Although scientists are discovering the powerful effects that touch has on our physiology and behavior, we touch each other preciously little," offers Hertenstein, a research psychologist. "With the exception of touching our closest friends and family, our society has placed significant proscriptions against touch, making the U.S. one of the lowest contact cultures. Simply put: Touch is taboo, and this has a detrimental effect on our lives."

The professor acknowledges, "touch is not a panacea for all, or even some, of our ills. And, clearly, touch can be used Matt Hertenstein 2006.jpginappropriately. Prohibiting harmful types of touch such as sexual abuse are imperative." But he fears a society that is, among other things, creating "no-touch" rules in schools may be creating more problems than it solves.

"According to scientists, children are experiencing more stress today than in recent decades. Scientists also report, however, that touch reduces both physiological and perceived stress," Hertenstein notes. "Touch causes one's stress hormones, such as cortisol, to decrease while causing other hormones, such as oxytocin, to increase -- thus promoting social bonding and wellness. Moreover, brain regions that are activated in anticipation of stressful events are reduced when touched by another person. Recent studies also indicate that touch can communicate such distinct emotions as love, gratitude and sympathy -- just by a brief touch to the arm. Finally, studies have revealed that touch has the capacity to communicate security -- something that is in low supply for many children."

First Day Classes 2008 2JPGHertenstein cites other research which shows that touch positively impacts premature infants. He also points out, "Parents in the United States provide significantly less touch to their children in everyday interaction than those in many other cultures in the world. Such non-touch behavior socializes our children to live a life 'out of touch' with others. Many adults, especially those without partners, experience lives of touch deprivation. Furthermore, at the end of life, many find themselves in nursing homes where, again, touch is in high demand, but in low supply."

Access the complete essay -- "Americans' pathological avoidance of touch" -- at College News.org.

Research conducted by Matt Hertenstein and his students at DePauw has previously been featured in American Baby and Prevention magazines, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's program, The Nature of Things, in Sunrise magazine and the Toronto Sun, and on National Public Radio.

"Decades of research has been done on the face and the Matt Hertenstein BG 2007.jpgvoice and the distinct emotions that they communicate," reported NPR's Michelle Trudeau. "But touch had been relatively neglected by researchers until Hertenstein stepped in and began his experiments."

Visit Dr. Hertenstein's Emotion Lab online by clicking here.

Source: Providence (R.I.) Journal

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