Tiffany Field has spent decades trying to get people to touch one another more.
Her efforts started with premature babies, when she found that basic human touch led them to quickly gain weight. An initial small study, published in the journal Pediatrics in 1986, showed that just 10 days of “body stroking and passive movements of the limbs” for less than an hour led babies to grow 47 percent faster. They averaged fewer days in the hospital and accrued $3,000 less in medical bills. The effect has been replicated multiple times.
Field, a developmental psychologist by training, went on to found the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She was a pioneer in highlighting the effects of “touch deprivation” among kids, famously those in orphanages. She explained to me that the effects are pervasive, influencing so many bodily systems that kids are diagnosed with “failure to thrive,” resulting in permanent physical and cognitive impairment, smaller stature, and social withdrawal later in life—which often includes aversion to physical contact.
Physical touch doesn’t make adults larger, but its effects are still coming to light. Field has published similar findings about the benefits of touch in full-term infants, and then children and pregnant women, adults with chronic pain, and people in retirement homes. Studies that involved as little as 15 daily minutes found that touch alone, even devoid of the other supportive qualities it usually signifies, seems to have myriad benefits.
The hug, specifically, has been repeatedly linked to good health. In a more recent study that made headlines about hugs helping the immune system, researchers led by the psychologist Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University isolated 400 people in a hotel and exposed them to a cold virus. People who had supportive social interactions had fewer and less severe symptoms. Physical touch (specifically hugging) seemed to account for about a third of that effect. (The researchers conclude: “These data suggest that hugging may act as an effective means of conveying support.”) Cohen and his colleagues continued to show other health benefits of physical contact, such as a 2018 reveal in the journal PLOS titled “Receiving a Hug Is Associated With the Attenuation of Negative Mood That Occurs on Days With Interpersonal Conflict.”
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