Touch Might Just Be the Most Important of All 5 Senses—Here’s Why

The world's leading neuroscientists agree that human contact is vital for our health, wellness and happiness.

handAnastassiya Bezhekeneva/shutterstockEvery two or three months, Thyago Ohana goes out on the busy streets of Vienna with a big smile and a sign saying “Free Hugs.” The handsome 32-year-old Brazilian, who works in international trade at India’s Vienna embassy, chooses a popular locale, like the historic shopping street Kaerntner Strasse. There he opens his arms to anyone who wants a hearty embrace—and just one hug a day can have amazing health benefits.

He does it because once, back in 2012, when he was feeling very stressed and anxious during a visit to Paris, a stranger gave him a free hug. He’s never forgotten how it filled him with unexpected calm and joy.

For those who take up his offer, getting a hug makes them laugh and smile. But sometimes it does more, as when an elderly woman in a tour group stopped and watched him. The group moved on, but she asked, “Can I have a hug?”

“Of course you can!” said Thyago who wrapped his arms round her.

When they broke their embrace, she kept holding onto his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Thank you,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I was hugged this way.”

It’s a memory that still makes Thyago emotional. “It was a really powerful moment of human connection. It is why I keep doing it.” 

Of our five senses, our sense of touch is the one we are most apt to take for granted and yet the one we can least do without. 

“A child can be born blind or deaf and they will grow up just fine, with no cognitive impairments,” says US neuroscientist David J. Linden, author of Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind. “Yet if an infant is deprived of loving social touch for the first two years of life, then all sorts of disasters unfold.” 

Citing the terrible experience of some young children who were deprived of loving touch in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s, Linden describes how not only did they have psychological and intellectual difficulties, their immune systems did not develop properly nor did their digestive systems.

That’s one reason why when babies are born, the naked infant is now usually placed on her mother’s naked skin. Research studies now encourage the regular stroking and holding of premature infants, even through special portholes in incubators. (Did you know hospitals didn’t always have newborn baby nurseries?) It is also a reason why classes in infant massage techniques have passionate supporters worldwide.

Elsie Peña Tretvik, of Molde, Norway, sought out such a class because she wanted to comfort and bond with her colicky infant daughter, Maya. Born and raised in Costa Rica, Elsie was visiting home with three-month-old Maya when her daughter was crying for up to three hours each evening.

One of her old friends, Paola Rodríguez, just happened to be the CEO of the International Association of Infant Massage, whose more than 30 international chapters include one in Costa Rica. When Elsie contacted her looking for help, she suggested Elsie take one of the organization’s five-day courses.

Content continues below ad

The course changed Elsie’s life. “Not only did I learn how to help Maya relax and relieve her colic, I learned how to read her emotional cues and build my confidence as a mother.” She decided to certify as a teacher in infant massage, and now offers the course to parents in Molde. “The benefits are huge. My husband and I took the course together,” said Elsie. Having recently given birth to her second child, she will teach Maya, now two, how to help and do some gentle strokes. But this effect is just one of many fascinating secrets about our sense of touch.

It is only in relatively recent years that science has begun to understand the highly complex system of nerves, sensors and receptors that link our skin and brain to our environment and the other people in it. Says Linden: “There is still so much we don’t know about various touch sensations.” We do know, however, “there are separate sensors for texture, vibration, pressure and itch,” he says.

One of the leading touch researchers in the world is Dr. Håkan Olausson, professor of clinical neuroscience at Linköping University in Sweden. He was part of a team that found special touch fibers, called C-tactile afferent fibers, that are responsible for registering and transmitting the emotional meaning of gentle, slow strokes and caresses. These nerves respond optimally when touched at around 32 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a human hand. “They are particularly sensitive to caresses by other people, but also respond to many other types of touch, such as pressing on the skin,” says Dr. Olausson.

When the CT fibers don’t work properly, it may undermine making emotional connections to others. Research last year led by neuroscientist Francis McGlone, at Liverpool John Moores University in England, has found that children on the autism spectrum may have a difference in the functioning of their CT fibers that causes them to feel another person’s soft touch as unpleasant.

As we age, our sense of touch gets less sensitive, but Dr. Olausson and another team of researchers found that the pleasantness of touch remains and is even enhanced with age.

Alas, as Thyago Ohana well knows, the elderly among us, while appreciating touch more, may be the most touch-deprived. Linden notes the research is clear about the benefits of massage and other forms of social touch for the elderly, but it hasn’t yet been translated widely into care homes and other senior-oriented health services. In fact, this is how Grandparents Day came from such a desire to better appreciate the elderly.

Dr. Manuel Arroyo-Morales, is a professor of physiotherapy at the University of Granada in Spain, where researchers study “the effect of hands on the human body.” He and his team are particularly interested in the impact of massage therapies on cancer patients, finding that it partially reduces pain and fatigue, strengthens the immune system, and reduces anxiety.

Importantly, they have found that some of the outcomes depend on the attitude of the patient toward touch and the relationship between therapist and patient. It is the specific type of massage and the “consensual touching relationship” that provide the key benefits, says Dr. Arroyo-Morales.

Content continues below ad

Joannie McCutcheon, 65, knows that first hand. In 2005 she was living in Amsterdam, working in a multi-national company as an IT specialist, when she was diagnosed with two brain tumors. One was a benign meningioma and the other a more aggressive oligodendroglioma. She named them Melanie and Ollie. “They are part of me; I needed to accept them.”

Joannie had surgery to remove part of Ollie (the other part was inoperable), which is typically fatal within a few years. Separated from her husband, with grown children, in 2007 she moved back home to Scotland and in 2015 became a volunteer with the Iris Cancer Partnership, a charity that provides free massages to cancer patients from specially trained therapists. Joannie applies her IT skills on the board of Iris, and as a patient receives a massage every three weeks from her own personal massage therapist and now friend, Angela Secretan.

“I can go in feeling exhausted and headachy. She’ll massage my head or my back, and she does reflexology on my feet. She seems to know instinctively what I need and together we decide what is best for me at that moment. It is always just gorgeous and I come out feeling everything is okay again.” Learn about more surprising health benefits of massages.

Joannie feels her regular massages, as well as her adopting the attitude that her tumours were a gift that brought new relationships into her life, have kept her alive after others with the same diagnosis have died.

As well as sustaining life, the emotional connection of touch therapy can also have a profound and moving effect at life’s end. Simon Robey knows that well. He’s the coordinator of complementary therapies and the interim head of supportive care for St. Joseph’s Hospice, in east London. As part of its care the hospice provides, all free of charge, a wide range of touch therapies not only to their dying patients, but to their loved ones and families, who are all under an inordinate amount of stress.

Simon Robey describes the experience of a young woman, in her early 30s, who was hours away from death. The family was supportive, staying by her bedside day and night, but the therapist offered additional support massaging the dying woman’s hands, legs, feet. “She was drifting in and out of consciousness… but we all noticed she became remarkably more relaxed; she really responded to those sensory touches. For the family there was something quite reassuring that it helped make her final hours more comfortable.” Here are more heartwarming lessons that people learned from working with the dying.

So how do we get more loving touch, while we are hale and hearty, into our day-to-day lives? For some, the answer is “cuddle parties”—non-sexual three-plus-hour social events in which participants do just that—cuddle.

The Irish Cuddle Salon is held in Dublin on the third Sunday of every month. Wendy Stephens, 33, heard about it from a friend. As a single woman living near Dublin, she was nervous and thought it might be uncomfortable. But she found it a “beautiful, grounding experience” and hasn’t missed a month ever since. It improves her sleep and her appetite and decreases any feeling of loneliness, and she is more comfortable within herself.

Neuroscientist David J. Linden says however you do it, working within cultural ideas and rules, “maximizing touch in your life is a good thing”—whether it is a therapeutic massage, holding hands, petting a dog, going to the hairdresser, or hugging our kids, our partners or even a stranger.

“When we put our hands on each other,” wrote Linden with co-author Martha Thomas in a recent issue of AARP The Magazine, “we’re tapping into deep associations between touch and emotion that are kindled at the dawn of life.”

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Reader’s Digest editors, who aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of revenue from our partners, such as Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We welcome your feedback. Have something you think we should know about? Email us at [email protected].

Want to stay smart and healthy?

Get our weekly Health Reads newsletter

how we use your e-mail
We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.