The Importance of Touch for Emotional, Physical, Psychological, and Sexual Health

By Bernhard Guenther
Home / The Importance of Touch for Emotional, Physical, Psychological, and Sexual Health
Touching – The Human Significance of the Skin” by Ashley Montagu is a book I can highly recommend to anyone, not only to massage therapists, but to anyone who wants to learn about themselves, and especially for parents to understand the tactile parent-child relationship. This book explores the importance of healthy touch and how it (or lack there-of) determines our development and emotional, psychological, sexual behaviors throughout life as well as our physical health in general.

“A groundbreaking achievement when it was first published in 1971, this moving and absorbing examination of the importance of tactile interaction-touching-on all facets of human development is now brought thoroughly up to date in light of research since 1978. Dr. Montagu here devotes special attention to the relation of the skin and touching to mental and physical health; the discovery of the immunological functions of the skin; the importance of touching, especially for older people; a demonstration of the harmfulness of newfangled methods of dealing with the newborn; gender differences; new experimental studies on the deprivation effect; the relation between touching and imaging; and the uses of touching in psychotherapeutic situations.”

In my practice as a bodyworker I’ve realized that it is not only about (my) the therapist’s touch but also about how a client is able to receive it. Especially in our culture, where many people are out of touch with their bodies, have not been nurtured in childhood,or are dealing with trauma, some people are actually afraid of touch (most often unconsciously) or perceive any touch as “sexual”. “Touching – The Human Significance of the Skin” goes deeper into this topic. In my private practice I take time to address this topic and help educate my clients about touch and how to receive a massage. The better a person can receive bodywork (which involves trust, surrender, letting go…which most often takes time to establish and also depends on what I call the right “therapist-client frequency match”), the more effective the session.

This book also describes how the birth process and even the prenatal stage affects one’s psychology later in life and how important nurturing touch is for one’s healthy development. For example, there are interesting differences between people who were born via C-section and people who were born going through the birth-canal and babies who were breast-fed or not. Then there is the mother-child relationship right after birth and how touch or lack there-of determines the child’s later development, also relating to sexuality, psychological dispositions, disease and illness.

One important fact to point out is that the skin is the largest organ of the body and it is literally the surface of the brain. Arising out of the same Germ Layer on pre-embryonic development (the Ectoderm), skin and brain migrate to opposite ends of our physical structure, one at the surface, the other buried by layers of connective tissue, bone and muscle. As if recognizing its own importance and vulnerability, the brain shields itself within the organism, while the skin and nervous tissues, all arising from the Ectoderm, extend the brains reach to our physical periphery.

The significance of the brain/skin relationship is one of the most important developmental, as well as physiological relationship to understand. Developmentally, the sensations which the skin mediates to the brain orient its growth in a very direct way. A lack of sensory stimulation in the first five months of life can impede central nervous development to the point of mental retardation and even death.

This was a lesson learned in orphanages in the early 1900’s, when infant mortality rates (about 90%) prompted Johns Hopkins University to research the problem. What they discovered was that infants were starving from lack of touch because the staff had barely enough time to feed and cloth the infants in their charge. As staffing was increased with the intention of holding, cuddling and physically playing with these children, mortality rates reversed from 9 in 10, to 1 in 10.

Touch is in fact food. With regards to bodywork and massage, skin to skin contact, when slowly and sensitively applied, is as vital to our development as mothers milk. The limitless potential for stimulating natural healing process through bodywork can be better understood in that context.

The skin is both protective and interactive. It is an organ of immunity (barrier to bacteria), temperature regulation (perspiration), and most importantly contains many of the body’s most important sensory receptors, providing the brain with vital information about the state of our outside world. The sense of touch, mediated through the skin, is the mother of the five senses, being the earliest in evidence in embryonic development. The eyes, ears, nose and tongue are all covered by a type of skin with specialized nerve receptors which interpret the “touch” of our environment as the other four of our familiar five senses.

“The skin is the surface of the brain; to touch the surface is to stir the depths. I cannot touch an organism’s skin anywhere without arousing that organism’s entirety. That is to say, the skin on one hand a primary boundary of our physical selves, and on the other hand a primary threshold of interactions that connect our inner world with the world around us in many ways. The stimulation of this threshold is as necessary to us as water, food, or oxygen.

Without adequate stimulation of our skins we will languish. Infants sufficiently deprived of touch perish, regardless of being fed and sheltered. Slightly more, but still inadequate touch results in deprivation dwarfism, with severe abnormalities of development that closely mimic those caused by chronic malnutrition. Adults experimentally deprived of tactile sensations become psychologically deranged. There is indeed something in the touch of flesh with flesh without which we simply cannot thrive.”

– Deane Juhan, “Touched by the Goddess: The Physical, Psychological, and Spiritual Powers of Bodywork”

Some excerpts from “Touching – The Human Significance of the Skin” by Ashley Montagu:

“This book is about the skin as a tactile organ very much involved, not alone physically but also behaviorally, in the growth and development of the organism. The central referent is man, and what happens or fails to happen to him as an infant by way of tactile experience, as affecting his subsequent behavioral development, is my principal concern here.[…]

The skin as an organ, the largest organ of the body, was very much neglected until quite recently. But it is not as an organ as such that I am here concerned with the skin; rather, in contrast to the psychosomatic or centrifugal approach, I am interested in what may be called the somatopsychic or centripetal approach. In short, I am interested in the manner in which tactile experience or its lack affects the development of behavior; hence, “the mind of the skin.”[…]

The question we are most concerned to ask and answer in this book is, What influence do the various kinds of cutaneous experiences which the organism undergoes, especially in early life, have upon its development? Primarily we are concerned to discover: (1) What kind of skin stimulations are necessary for the healthy development of the organism, both physically and behaviorally? and (2) What are the effects, if any, of the want or insufficiency of particular kinds of skin stimulation?

The specific question to which we seek an answer is: Must the member of the species Homo sapiens undergo, in the course of early development, certain kinds of tactile experiences in order to develop as a healthy human being? If such experiences are necessary, of what kind are they? For some light on these questions we may first turn to the observations made on other animals.

The manner in which the young of all mammals snuggle up to and cuddle the body of the mother as well as the bodies of their siblings or of any other introduced animal strongly suggests that cutaneous stimulation is an important biological need, for both their physical and behavioral development. Almost every animal enjoys being stroked or otherwise having its skin pleasurably stimulated. Dogs appear to be insatiable in their appetite for stroking, cats will relish it and purr, as will innumerable other animals both domestic and wild, apparently enjoying the stroking at least as much as they do self-licking. The supreme note of confidence offered a human by a cat is to rub itself against your leg. […]

When a baby is born a mother is also born. There is considerable evidence that at this time, and for months thereafter, her needs for contact exceed those of the infant. The Harlows observed that during the first few months in the rhesus monkey the mother’s need for intimate contact surpassed that of the infant, and served to produce maternal protection. In the human mother the need for intimate contact is undoubtedly much greater and considerably more prolonged than it is in other mammals, serving not only important psychological functions, but also many physiological ones, such as arresting of the postpartum hemorrhage, contraction of the uterus, detachment and expulsion of the placenta, improved circulation, etc.

A striking finding of Harlow and his fellow investigators was that when the five utter failures as mothers had their histories traced back to their early experiences it was found that they had been denied the opportunity to develop normal maternal-infant relationships, that they had never known a real monkey mother of their own, and had also been denied normal infant-infant relationships, subsequently having only limited physical association with other monkeys. Two of these mothers were essentially indifferent to their infants, and three were violently abusive. “Failure of normal gratification of contact-clinging in infancy may make it impossible for the adult female to show normal contact relationships with her own infant. Likewise, maternal brutality may stem from inadequate social experience with other infants within the first year of life.

Furthermore, these investigators found that none of the motherless-mother animals ever showed normal female sex behavior, such as posturing and responding. They became mothers in spite of them selves. As we shall see, the parallel with such interrelated behaviors in humans is virtually complete, and the significance of these behaviors is virtually identical.

The biological unity, the symbiotic relationship, maintained by mother and conceptus throughout pregnancy does not cease at birth; indeed, it is naturally designed to become even more intensively functional and mutually involving after birth than during gestation in the uterus….Birth represents a complex and highly important series of functional changes which serve to prepare the newborn for the passage across the bridge between gestation within the womb and gestation continued outside the womb. Because the human infant is born in so precariously immature a condition, it is especially necessary for the parental generation of the human species fully to understand what the immaturity of its infants really signifies: namely, that with all the modifications initiated by the birth process, the infant is still continuing its gestation period, passing, by the avenue of birth, from uterogestation to exterogestation in a continuing and ever more complex interactive relationship with the mother, the one person in the world who is best equipped to meet its needs.

Among the most important of the newborn infant’s needs are the signals it receives through the skin, its first medium of communication with the outside world. In preparation for its functioning in the postnatal world to afford it, as it were, a womb with a view the massive contractions of the uterus upon the body of the fetus play an important role.[…]

In 1939, Mary Shirley published the results of a study on premature children of nursery school and kindergarten age conducted at the Harvard Child Study Center in Boston. Shirley found that premature children exhibit a significantly higher sensory acuity than term children, and in comparison are some what retarded in lingual and manual control, as well as in postural and locomotor control. Control of bowel and bladder sphincters, significantly enough, was found to be achieved later and with difficulty in the premature children. The attention span is short; such children are inclined to be highly emotional, jumpy, anxious, and usually shy. Summarizing her findings, Shirley observed that in the preschool period, the prematures present significantly more behavior problems than fullterm children. These problems include hyperactivity, later acquisition of bowel and bladder control, enuresis, excessive distractibility, shyness, thumb-sucking, negativism and hypersensitivity to sound.

What the child requires if it is to prosper, it was found, is to be handled, and carried, and caressed, and cuddled, and cooed to, even if it isn’t breastfed. It is the handling, the carrying, the caressing, and the cuddling that we would here emphasize, for it would seem that even in the absence of a great deal else, these are the reassuringly basic experiences the infant must enjoy if it is to survive in some semblance of health. Extreme sensory deprivation in other respects, such as light and sound, can be survived, as long as the sensory experiences at the skin are maintained.[…]
When, in later life, we speak of the “warmth” of a person, as compared with those who are “cold,” these are not, we may suspect, mere figures of speech. As Otto Fenichel has said:

“Temperature eroticism in particular is often combined with early oral eroticism and forms an essential part of primitive receptive sexuality. To have cutaneous contact with the partner and to feel the warmth of his body remains an essential component of all love relationships. In archaic forms of love, where objects serve rather as mere instruments for gaining satisfaction, this is especially marked. Intense pleasure in warmth, frequently manifested in neurotic bathing habits, is usually encountered in persons who simultaneously show other signs of a passive-receptive orientation, particularly in regard to the regulation of their self- esteem. For such persons, “to get affection” means “to get warmth.” They are “frozen” personalities who “thaw” in a “warm” atmosphere, who can sit for hours in a warm bath or on a radiator.”

Though much that has been attributed to the oral phase of development has not been adequately investigated, there can be not the least doubt of the existence of a profound relationship between oral experiences in infancy and later sexual competencies. Nor can there be any doubt of the intimate connection between the skin and all its appendages, including hair, glands, neural elements, and sexual behavior. A French wit has remarked that love is the harmony of two souls and the contact of two epidermes. And indeed, it is in the sexual act that, next to the perinatal experience of labor, the individual experiences his most massive cutaneous stimulations, with the lips and tongue and mouth usually actively involved. Nor can there be any doubt that eating and love become closely interwoven in such a manner that in later life eating often becomes a substitute satisfaction for love, obesity frequently constituting an evidence of a failure to obtain love. The offering of food is often more than a perfunctory evidence of the tendering of love.

That the mother experiences something akin to sexual stimulation by the baby’s suckling is well known, and that the baby experiences sensations which, endowed with meanings, later become perceptions of something resembling sexual gratification, is highly probable. We have already noted on an earlier page that inadequate mothering may seriously affect the subsequent sexual behavior of the offspring. The Harlows, to whom we owe this observation, have also shown that while rhesus monkeys raised by live mothers were more advanced in social and sexual behavior than those raised by surrogate mothers constructed of terry-cloth covered wire, the surrogate-raised infants developed perfectly normal social and sexual behavior if they were permitted each day to play in the stimulating environment of other infant monkeys.

The Harlows rightly point out that the role played by infant-infant relationships as determiners of adolescent and adult adjustments should not be underestimated. It is more than possible, the Harlows suggest, that the infant-infant affectional system “is essential if the animal is to respond positively to sheer physical contact with a peer, and it is through the operation of this system, probably both in monkey and man, that sexual roles become identified and, usually, acceptable.”

It is, indeed possible, even probable, as the Harlows suggest, that infant-infant contacts are necessary for the full development of social and sexual competence, but that, in the absence of any kind of mother at all, such behavior would, even in the presence of other-infant contacts, not develop as well as in mothered infants. Certainly it is clear that, in humans, good mothering without peer contacts has not seriously detrimentally affected the social and sexual development of innumerable individuals.

Indeed, there exists an extensive literature showing how enormously important the mother’s behavior is for her infant’s subsequent social and sexual development. We may be reasonably sure, when all the evidence is in, that however valuable the infant-infant affectional relation may prove to be, it will never equal the influence of the affectional relationship that exists between the nursing couple, always with the understanding that the mother is genuinely affectionate. There can be little doubt that peer interaction in the social growth and development of the child is of considerable importance, for it is in the give and take between peers that children try out and learn many of the modulations of interpersonal behavior.[…]

Originally derived from the Old French louche, the word is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or an act of touching (with the hand, finger, or other part of the body); exercise of the faculty of feeling upon a material object.” Touching is defined as “the action, or an act, of feeling some thing with the hand, etc.” The operative word is feeling. Although touch is not itself an emotion, its sensory elements induce those neural, glandular, muscular, and mental changes which in combination we call an emotion. Hence touch is not experienced as a simple physical modality, as sensation, but affectively, as emotion. When we speak of being touched, especially by some act of beauty or sympathy, it is the state of being emotionally moved that we wish to describe. And when we describe someone as being “touched to the quick,” it is another kind of emotion that we have in mind.

The verb “to touch” comes to mean to be sensitive to human feeling. To be “touchy” means to be oversensitive. “To keep in touch” means that how ever far we may be removed we remain in communication. That is what language was originally designed to do, to put and to keep human in touch with human. The experiences the infant undergoes in contact with his mother’s body constitute his primary and basic means of communication, his first language, his first entering into touch with another human being, the genesis of “the human touch”.[…]”