Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Incredible Power of Touch

What a lovely word 'haptic' is. It's a technical word meaning 'relating to touch' and immediately the word 'happy' springs to mind. Although the words do not come from the same linguistic origin, the association is fitting because most forms of touch - caressing, stroking, patting, for example - do lead to a sense of health, well-being and, well, happiness.
Touch is the earliest sense to develop in the human embryo and, whereas, other senses are confined to specific body parts (nose, ears, eyes and mouth) the sensory organ for touch is the skin, and, therefore, relates to the whole body. So touch can be said to be the primary and all-encompassing sense.
Studies have shown the importance of touch to our well-being at all stages of life. Infants deprived of touch fail to thrive (think of those poor Rumanian orphanage children); the happiest marriages are said to be those where physical affection continues; and elderly people feeling isolated in care homes report how important a hug or held hand can be to give them a sense of being cared for and about.
Ironically, as research is highlighting the value of touch, in western culture we are touching each other less than ever before. Perhaps we are becoming more reliant on technology (even if haptic technology) than human touch. This may be true in doctors' surgeries, for example, where the physical hands-on examination seems to be giving way to high tech and pharmaceutical diagnostic procedures. In some schools, too, heightened awareness of inappropriate touching has led to physical contact between teacher and pupil being banned, removing opportunities for that gentle pat of encouragement or empathetic hand on the shoulder.
So while social touching is on the wane, more and more benefits of haptic therapies particularly massage therapy are being documented. Today massage is used to assist and complement medical healing as well as to boost our general health, immunity and sense of well-being.
In fact, pain and pleasure may be closer than we thought. Recently scientists discovered 'pleasure nerves' in the skin which are transmitted to the brain slowly by the same nervous fibers as those for pain, the C-fibers. According to Professor Francis McGlone of Liverpool University, tests on human volunteers showed that a painful stimulus applied to the skin can be eased by gently stroking pleasure nerves in a nearby part of the body, just as a mother might caress a hurt child to ease the pain.
Massage works through the stroking and kneading or the soft tissues of the body. This eases the tension out of stiff, aching muscles, encourages both the mind and the body to relax and, in turn causes the muscles to loosen and allow a greater range of movement. It is an enjoyable, uplifting, natural and drug-free experience, bringing both immediate and long-term relief to many physiological and psychological conditions with regular treatment.  A good massage can also alleviate symptoms of serious disease, including some forms of cancer. In such cases, however, it is important to check with a doctor before starting treatment.

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