Touch and The Meaning of Life

Like every other being on this planet I have spent quite a bit of time pondering the meaning of life.  At 18 I used to sit on the beach at night gazing at the stars and trying to work out why we were put on this earth and what it was that we were supposed to achieve while we were here.  I had some pretty lofty ideas.

Now, after just over half a century in this world I have come to the conclusion that our divine purpose is little more than to live happily – as happily as possible.  To connect to other humans and to our earth and to try always to impact the lives of those around us positively (never negatively).  Connection – true connection – to another human is perhaps the most wonderful thing we can experience.  Trust Oriented Therapy is based on exactly this ‘connection’ and demonstrates the power of words alone to overcome and smooth even the most traumatic emotional pain.  At the end of a session I have witnessed the heartbeats of counsellor and client beating calmly together, in unison, even after the client has experienced a difficult session.  The other magical connection is through touch…

And at last there is scientific confirmation of the incredible soothing nature of being touched and stroked as scientists find ‘pleasure nerves’ in the skin.

Since the beginning of time, mothers have used touch to sooth their babies.  A child who can’t sleep succumbs immediately to a gentle stroking on his back.  Instead of staying awake, a partner strokes the arm of his loved one and falls straight back to sleep.  A young woman talking about her trauma to a counsellor strokes a dog, the sensation traveling back through her own hand, steadying her heartbeat and reducing her anxiety.

Evidence shows that people need stimulation at a certain speed – 4-5cm per second – to activate the pleasure sensation.  Although warmth and closeness seems to create complete comfort and skin that grows hair is more able to benefit from touch.

A team, including scientists from the Unilever company, have identified a class of nerve fibres in the skin which specifically send pleasure messages.

They say the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, could help understand how touch sustains human relationships.

For many years, scientists have been trying to understand the mechanisms behind how the body experiences pain, and the nerves involved in conveying those messages to the brain.

This is because people can suffer a great deal.

Neuropathy, where the peripheral nervous system is damaged, can be very painful and sometimes the messaging system goes wrong and people feel pain even when there is no cause.

But the researchers involved in this work were looking to understand the opposite sensation – pleasure.

This research, which also involved experts at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and at the University of North Carolina, recorded nerve responses in 20 people.

They then tested how people responded to having their forearm skin stroked at a range of different speeds.

They identified “C-tactile” nerve fibres as those stimulated when people said a touch had been pleasant.

If the stroke was faster or slower than the optimum speed, the touch was not pleasurable and the nerve fibres were not activated.

The scientists also discovered that the C-tactile nerve fibres are only present on hairy skin, and are not found on the hand.

Professor Francis McGlone, now based at Unilever after an academic career where he carried out research into nerve response, says this is likely to be a deliberate “design”.

“We believe this could be Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that mixed messages are not sent to the brain when it is in use as a functional tool.”

He said the speed at which people found arm-stroking pleasurable was the same as that which a mother uses to comfort a baby, or couples use to show affection.

Professor McGlone said it was part of the evolutionary mechanism that sustained relationships between adults, or with children.

“Our primary impulse as humans is procreation, but there are some mechanisms in place that are associated with behaviour and reward which are there to ensure relationships continue.”

Source: BBC

John M. Orbell
Institute of Cognitive & Decision Sciences
Straub Hall 1284, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403