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Embracing the power of human touch


A FEW YEARS AGO, psychology professor Dacher Keltner took a seat on the stage of a Vancouver auditorium next to the Dalai Lama. As he and the three other panelists set about discussing the links between science and Buddhism, Keltner watched His Holiness tickle the ribs of professor Paul Ekman and squeeze the earlobe of neuroscientist Richie Davidson. He greeted other Tibetan monks who afterward approached him by falling into a deep bow and then rubbing the corner of his head against the supplicant’s. Well after the symposium, Keltner remembered his own handshake with the Dalai Lama:

“From 18 inches away, I came into contact with [the Dalai Lama],” Keltner wrote. “Partially stooped in a bow, he made eye contact with me and clasped my hands. His eyebrows were raised. His eyes gleamed. His modest smile was poised near a laugh. Emerging out of the bow and clasped hands, he embraced my shoulders and shook them slightly with warm hands.”


The Dalai Lama shared a moment with Barbara Walters during filming of a 2005 show.ABC/ ROB WALLACE/FILE/ABC

That simple but respectful encounter gave Keltner, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, goose bumps, which “spread across my back like wind on water, starting at the back of my spine and rolling up my scalp.” For several weeks after, and despite how silly it sounded, Keltner said he “lived in a new realm.” He didn’t care that the airline had misplaced his baggage on his return flight to the Bay Area. He didn’t bristle at his squabbling daughters, fighting over a Polly Pocket. Everything and everyone in his life — the undergrads in his classroom, the businessmen waiting for a carpool, even the homeless cursing the skies — seemed guided by purer intentions. The Dalai Lama’s greeting had done this, and Keltner concluded that his “genius at touch is a window into an ancient communicative system. . .”


So he set out to study it. Keltner played pickup basketball twice a week, and in a lifetime of roughly 4,500 games, with players from all backgrounds — “Andover grads, kids from the projects . . . novelists, medical doctors, seventy-year-olds, lapsed drug dealers, lipstick lesbians . . . and drifters off the streets playing in paper-thin shoes” — he said he’d never once seen a fight, and he thought that was due to the players not only respecting but touching each other: boxing out a defender for a rebound, high-fiving a teammate, helping up an opponent whom he’d fouled.

He wanted to see if touch engendered good will on the court. So he and two researchers set out to code the fist bumps and butt slaps of the NBA during the 2008-2009 regular season. The study they published the following year, in the journal Emotion, found that the league’s touchiest teams were also its most successful. The more teammates high-fived each other, the more games they won.

In fact, the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers, who played in the 2010 Finals, were the teams whose players communicated the most by touch. The study didn’t argue that a chest bumps caused better performance, but it certainly seemed to be a correlation. “[Touch] is the first language we learn,” Keltner said after the study’s publication, and “our richest means of emotional expression.”

Celtics Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett made their way back to the bench after a play in a 2010 game.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file

HIS SCHOLARLY ARTICLE quickly became the most famous in the burgeoning field of touch research. Other studies found that touch therapy helped premature infants grow faster, teenaged mothers cope better, the elderly in nursing homes live richer lives. Researchers discovered that a doctor’s comforting touch left patients with the impression that a visit lasted twice as long; that a massage from a loved one not only eased pain but lessened depression; that students touched on the hand by a librarian had more favorable views of the library itself.


Last month, a study also published in Emotion argued that adolescent girls felt less stress while giving a public statement if they were able to touch their mothers beforehand. The article joins the more than 350 studies published over the past two decades, many of them examining the emotional and physiological benefits of our oldest sense. Quite a few have originated from the Touch Institute at the University of Miami, whose director, professor Tiffany Field, opened the lab in 1992 because no one seemed to notice the profound impact a shoulder squeeze could have.

Few still do. We are a “touch-deprived” nation, Field said, where taboos over touch have calcified into policies banning it, where public and private institutions that fear the hint of a sexual harassment suit discourage people from communicating in the most basic ways. Field knows that certain kinds of touch can be abusive or at least exploitive; she was, she dryly noted, a young researcher in a male-dominated field in the 1970s. But the wild pendulum swing away from touch in the intervening decades is just as maddening to her. Indeed, many states now ban nursery or elementary school teachers from comforting crying children; governing psychiatric boards discourage therapists from even shaking the hands of those they counsel; and hospitals and medical schools fail to promote touch between doctors and nurses and their patients.


Perhaps nowhere is the ban on touch more absolute than on college campuses. Nearly all universities forbid professors from touching their students, under any circumstances. This comes at a time when many schools attempt to protect their undergrads from the newly coined “trigger warnings” of past trauma, which lie in seemingly innocuous textbooks or classroom discussions, a hotly debated topic in and of itself.

The irony, Field and others say, is that the very students at risk of reliving past traumas would most benefit from an authority figure, maybe even a professor, comforting them with a hug or a pat on the back.

World War II veterans, British former army captain Harold Atcherley (left), 96, and Japanese former army engineer Mikio Kinoshita (right), 94, held hands as they attended a reception in their honor in London in June. While held as a prisoner of war by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1943, Atcherley was forced to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand “death railway,” a Japanese wartime project that cost the lives of an estimated 120,000 people. Kinoshita served as a Japanese army engineer, working on the same railway line.LEON NEAL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE

IN 1553 BC, “the Ebers Papyrus showed the early practice of healing by touch,” Field wrote in her book, “Touch,” first published in 2000. In ancient Greece, the son of Apollo, Ascelpius, healed people by placing his hands on them. By Hippocrates’s day, around 400 BC, the kheirourgos, the internists of their time, used fingers and palms to repair the body’s organs — and it is in fact from kheirourgos that surgeon derives. In all four Gospels of the New Testament, the young and infirm overcome sickness through the laying-on of hands. As Michelangelo once said: “To touch can be to give life.” European monarchies used the “royal touch” to make the sick within their ranks well; as late as 1825, France’s Charles X touched up to 130 people as a means to heal them. In the animal kingdom, a classic paper from the University of Wisconsin showed that infant monkeys preferred surrogate “mothers” made of terry cloth more than wire-mesh ones that even dispensed milk, “suggesting,” as Field wrote, “that they need the touch stimulation as much as, if not more than, the nourishment.”


Discouraging touch is a fairly recent, and overwhelmingly American, phenomenon. “The restrictive idea that sensual pleasures were dangerous and sinful was brought to this country by our puritanical founding fathers and held throughout the Victorian era,” wrote Ofer Zur and Nola Nordmarken in “To Touch or not to Touch: Exploring the Myth of Prohibition in Psychotherapy and Counseling.” By the turn of the 20th century, to “avoid masturbation,” babies’ nightgown sleeves were pinned down so they couldn’t “sin against” themselves. John Watson, a psychologist and parenting specialist at the time, considered a mother’s love for her child inherently sexual and warned that touches and kisses were a cover for a “sex-seeking response.”

“There is a sensible way of treating children,” Watson wrote. “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night and shake hands with them in the morning.” Mothers wrote in their diaries of the guilt they felt for cuddling and kissing their babies in secret, unable to abide by Watson’s dictates. Though he never gained a massive following, his strictures have imbued our culture: By 1997, the developmental psychologist Sharon Heller wrote that American babies and children remained among the least touched on earth.

Despite the cultural brow-beating, there have been advocates for touch in the United States. In the 1930s, for instance, Bellevue Hospital in New York instituted a program where nurses and staff touched and held premature infants; the mortality rate dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent. Indeed, Field found in her own research that premature babies who were massaged gained 47 percent more weight than those not massaged.

But the rise of the pharmaceutical industry in the 1950s led to a decrease in physical touch at hospitals; the oxytocin, or “bonding hormone,” that comforting physical touch naturally released was replaced by pills that chemically induced the same feeling, Field said. In fact, she argues that our turn toward drugs in the last half century to perform the duties that touch once handled — decreasing stress and depression, say — led institutions outside of the medical field to view touch with ever more disdain.

For example, even though as little as 1 percent of sexual assault cases occur at schools, many districts throughout the nation, including Massachusetts, now have formal policies against teachers touching students. The president of the National Education Association famously once said on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Our slogan is, ‘Teach; don’t touch.’”

Liability insurance and the threat of lawsuits have forced many universities to institute formal no-touching policies between students and faculty. The University of Pittsburgh this year wrote that professors cannot touch students who are angry; Berkeley faculty can’t touch students who are manic; Virginia Tech professors can’t touch students at all. On it goes.

Avery Gormely, 4, needed comforting from teacher Kerrelle Dow at Little Discoveries child care in Brockton in May.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

“We have forgotten how essential touch is,” Berkeley’s Keltner said. “And as we crudely apply ideas and linguistics on campus about harmful speech” — the so-called micro-aggressions and trigger warnings — “I think we are doing the same thing with touch. There’s good touch and bad touch, and if I touch someone on the back, to show support — I do think [the ban on touch] is undercutting our efforts on campus.”

Students aggrieved by past traumas could actually benefit the most from a culture that invited more forms of Keltner’s “good touch.” The studies that have examined this are clear. Therapist Teressa Lauer wrote in her book, “The Truth About Rape,” that, “trauma is remembered in the body, making re-learning the benefits of touch an integral part of your healing . . . ”

The Fort Bliss Restoration and Resiliency Center in Texas mandates that the veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder sit through sessions of therapy — but also yoga and massage. John Fortunato, the clinical psychologist who developed the program, stated on the center’s website that, “Many PTSD-afflicted soldiers experience hyper-arousal, which the staff treats with techniques like medical massage . . .” Meanwhile, academic literature stretching back to the 1970s shows that aggressive, violent, and antisocial behaviors among children and teens are linked to touch deprivation. The way to counteract this behavior, or to lessen the likelihood of repeated trauma, is to allow “clinically appropriate” touch in therapy sessions and in everyday interactions, argue therapists Jim Struve and Mic Hunter in their book, “The Ethical Use of Touch in Psychotherapy.”

“Touch is a language,” Keltner said, “It’s an old one, and let’s just get to be more sophisticated practitioners of this language.”

Last month, he was part of a consortium that convinced the state of California to reach a settlement in a class-action lawsuit, which moved hundreds of inmates out of solitary confinement and back into the general prison population. Keltner said the argument he used with legislators was simple: People who deprive touch are also the ones who unwittingly practice a form of torture.

Paul Kix is a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine. His book about a French résistant who escaped from the Nazis three times will be published next year.