News & Updates

The impacts of healthy touch

What do we as practitioners here at Arbutus Health Centre all have in common? Oh right! We all touch people for a living.

With “touch” being our primary shared design of business here, I decided to take a closer look at the impact that healthy touch and physical contact has on our health and wellbeing.

The topic of touch and its importance on our wellbeing has been an interest of mine for many years. As a university student, I studied psychology as my major. I recall many studies that stayed with me over the years. One study in particular demonstrated some major implications in the importance of physical contact during our early years of life. This study involved infant primates and the impact of physical contact on their emotional development and behaviour.

The experiment was conducted in 1950 by a psychologist named Harry Harlow. He took two sets of infant monkeys and raised them in one of two settings. The first group had a surrogate mother made out of cloth, the other group was raised with a surrogate made with wire. Both dispensed milk. (I never said this study was ethical!) The infants in the first group, raised by the cloth “mother” showed more stability and a much greater emotional response when being presented with an external stressful stimuli, at first, clinging to the cloth mother then, remaining playful and inquisitive after the initial fright, they easily calmed down. The second group however showed major signs of distress and terror. They clasped their ears. Throwing themselves to the ground, they were unable to calm down. They showed prolonged stress responses and long term consequences in regards to their behavioural and emotional development. “The first group benefitted from a psychological resource or emotional attachment which proved to be unavailable to members of the second group.”

[tweetthis hashtag=”#yyj”]Touch activates brain centres linked to feelings of reward and helps release oxytocin.[/tweetthis]

Beyond cultivating healthy emotional and behavioural development in infancy, our sense of touch and contact with each other as adults has numerous positive implications for us as individuals and as a society. Touch activates our brain centres linked to feelings of reward, compassion and trust; a single warranted touch triggers the release of oxytocin. This hormone has been dubbed as the “hug hormone,” “cuddle chemical,” “moral molecule” and the “bliss hormone.” The implications here are enormous! Individuals who receive a friendly pat at school or work are three times more likely to speak up in class and meetings, cooperate in groups, treat one another nicely and experience reduced symptoms of depression.

Pain, stress and immunity are some of the largest daily implications in the realm of touch. Stress is an interrelated physiological response that has one of the greatest responses to physical contact. Anything that increases the relaxation response, triggers the restoration of your immune response, simple as that. When pain is concerned, neurologically speaking, touch overrides the pain pathways, and works as a pain mediator.

As a society, and especially as technology is presenting ever growing benefits for us, we must not forget our essential need for physical contact with one another (no, a text message doesn’t cut it!). So, snuggle up with someone you love, hug your friends more often, spend some quality time with your pet or better yet, GET A MASSAGE!


  1. Harry F. Harlow, “Love in Infant Monkeys,” 1959.
  2. The Origins of Human Love and Violence, James W. Prescott, Ph.D. · Institute of Humanistic Science From Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, Volume 10, Number 3: Spring 1996, pp. 143-188.
  3. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence and Born to Be Good, and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct.
  4. Social Psychology of Education 7: 89–98, 2004. 89 Nonverbal encouragement of participation in a course: the effect of touching, Nicolas Guéguen.
  5. See also “Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart & Mind” David J. Linden, Neurobiologist and Author.