[A colleague’s recent query about the “neurochemistry of disappointment” sent me off on my own inquiry. Alas, a family medical emergency and the overloading of other obligations de-railed that investigation until next month’s newsletter. This month I’m doing something I’ve never done before: re-posting a previous newsletter, simply to give myself to dig out from under. The “news” about the power of touch to heal is as relevant now as it was 18 months ago. May you find it useful, and may you be forgiving of my delay in researching the neurochemistry of disappointment; how ironic.]

In his book Coming To Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn notes that the word “touch” has the distinction of having the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, even longer than the entry for love. (Jon credits Ashley Montague, in his book on touching, for this discovery.)

Attachment researchers have documented “beyond irrefutability” how foundational touch between baby and parents is to develop a secure attachment bond and support full development of the baby’s growing brain. Without enough loving touch, babies die of “failure to thrive.” Without enough touch, our brains don’t develop the structures and circuits we need to “feel” love, even though love is offered.

For reasons we explore below, even as adults we tend to live now in a touch-starved culture. Even as we gather with family and friends in the approaching holidays, often these holiday gatherings re-activate old attachment traumas around touch or lack of touch or harmful touch. We may not have, or know how to have, enough of the healthy touch that is “a vital element, if not the element, in bringing people into presence, awareness and interconnection with life.” (Eve Siegel, see more quotes below in Poetry and Quotes to Inspire.)

May these reflections on the healing power of touch and tools to recover a healthy sense and amount of touch in our lives be useful to you and yours this season.


Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley and director of the Greater Good Science Center there, researches pro-social emotions among adults,

“Studies have shown touch to be the primary language of compassion, love and gratitude – emotions at the heart of trust and cooperation – even more than facial expressions and voice. Touch is the central medium in which the goodness of one individual can spread to another. Touch is the original contact high.”

Touch triggers biochemical reactions in the recipient – activation of the orbitofrontal cortex (the region of the brain that helps us navigate our physical and social environments) and de-activation of the amygdala (the 24/7 alarm center that triggers the fight-flight response). Touch reduces cardiovascular stress and increases the release of neurochemicals like oxytocin – all of which promote trust and goodwill between individuals.

[You’ll find my own article on the role of touch and oxytocin in reducing conflict in couples in the Nov-Dec 2009 issue of the Psychotherapy Networker.]

In his book Born To Be Good, Dr. Keltner also cites the research of Tiffany Field in her book Touch.

When teachers were randomly assigned to touch some of their students and not others with friendly pats on the back, those students who received the rewarding touch were nearly twice as likely to participate in class. Students touched by librarians while checking out books indicated a much more favorable attitude toward the library and reading. People were almost twice as likely to sign a petition when touched by the volunteer petitioner in a friendly way.

Because touch strengthens the underlying physiologic systems that render the human stress response more labile and strong, touch is critical to thriving. Touch helps relieve symptoms of autism, ADHD, asthma and diabetes. Regular touch helps premature infants cope with stress better; massaging their infants relieves depression in new moms and relieves anxiety and depression in the elderly who volunteer to massage newborns.

For all that, according to Dr. Keltner, “It is not a stretch beyond rigorous empirical evidence to claim that touch is essential to our physical and mental vitality,” we remain a remarkably anti-touch culture.

In an observational study of the frequency of touch in cafes in different parts of the world, University of Florida psychologist S.M. Jourard observed two people in conversation over a cup of coffee. In London, not a single touch was observed; in Florida, 2. In Paris, 110. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, 180.

The anti-touch culture is part of our Calvinist-Victorian heritage. Psychologist and educator John Watson suggested, “There is a sensible way of treating children. 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.’ (!!!)

The impact of this kind of parenting is profound and tragic.

“The quality of the touch we receive and are encouraged to give from earliest infancy on is the basis of our feeling of connection or disconnection with others.” – Eve Siegel

Not only does the lack of touch de-rail the attachment bond that is the platform of emotional and psychological resilience in a growing child; it de-rails the development of somatic resources in the body that support that resilience.

I’m finding great hope for the repair of such de-railment as I’m training now in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a mindfulness-based, body-based approach for healing trauma, particularly attachment trauma. I’m blown away by the power of somatic resources – awareness of the bodies’ sensations, movements, postures, and the power of touch – to support the resolution of deep emotional pain around relational wounds and losses.

My favorite resource so far: the changes that happen in the core of the body when a skillful somatically trained therapist places one hand on the client’s back at the area of the heart, and the therapist or client places another hand on the heart in front. I’ve offered a Hand on the Heart exercise in this e-newsletter many times as a proven tool to reduce stress. This somatic resource deepens the experience quite a bit.

When I’ve experienced this myself, one hand behind the heart, one hand at the front of the heart, what happens seems to be a filling up of the space between the two hands. A warmth, a steadiness, a fullness in the heart center. Any emptiness, shakiness, void, is filled with a sense of ease, calm, inner peace. From my interest in attachment, I interpret this inner fullness as a “felt” sense of the internal secure base. I’m lovable and loved; I’m OK; I sense my true, resilient Self in this space.

The “Have you hugged your kid today?” bumper stickers are a poignant reminder of how touch-hungry we may become, through absent-mindedness, over-busyness, reluctance to admit a need, fear of violating boundaries, for ourselves or others. Even noticing how present or absent touch is in our daily lives can be a step toward recovering this resource of feeling our connection and disconnection with others.

May these offerings help you recover the healing power of touch.


In the absence of touching and being touched, people of all ages can sicken and grow touched starved. Touch seems to be as essential as sunlight.
– Diane Ackerman, The Natural History of the Senses

* * * * *

“Touch can alienate or profoundly integrate the connection between people depending on its nature and intent.  It also can lead a person deeper into his or her own being, opening space for change and possibilities to arise.”

”Clearly, when one person touches another with mindfulness and compassion, there is no limit to the possibilities for transformation.  The energetic focusing of this contact ignites the deep inner awareness inherent in the human consciousness, which is so often dulled through neglect or injury in a person’s development.”

”To be guided by touch, one needs to learn to be aware of its immense power to change or refocus stagnant ways of being and relating with the slightest pressure of contact.  Then it is possible to take advantage of its life-healing properties, its ability to help us connect, transform, to ‘come alive and aware.'”
– Eve Siegel

* * * * *

I teach infant massage classes to parents with the help of my co-teacher – the baby. Some parents know how to do this dance easily, some are unsure and some are told by the System that they do not know how to do it.  I have found that all parents can learn this basic dance if they have the desire to connect with their baby.  Whatever age we reach in our life time, the need to be touched, rocked , and cooed,   held close and know that we are precious in the eyes and heart and hands of another human being never goes away.
– Cherry Jones

* * * * *

In the first year of your child’s life, your body, much more than your mind or your words, is your primary communication tool. You receive almost all the incomoing information you need from your baby through your body and its sensations (as opposed to the communication we tend to focus on as adults – the exchange of ideas). And all the outgoing information you deliver to your baby goes through your body as well. You connect with your baby through your facial expressions, your warmth, your touch, your tone of voice, and your tension or relaxation in each moment. In fact, everything your baby knows about you and is learning from you during this time of ultimate brain plasticity, when neural pathways are being laid down for life, is happening through the communication between your body and you baby’s body. Your body is likely the primary source of nutrition, and even if you are bottle feeding, your body during feeding times nourishes the baby with important skin-to-skin contact.
– Cassie Vietan, Mindful Motherhood

* * * * *

To touch is to give life.
– Michelangelo

* * * * *

Touch is the alpha and omega of affection.
– William James

* * * * *

In the person whose childhood has known caresses and kindness, there is always a fibre of memory that can be touched to gentle issues.
– George Eliot

* * * * *

Some of the dictionary’s uses of touch identified by Jon Kabat-Zinn: we can be out of touch, lose touch, be touched (as in the head) and feel touched (as when our hearts are moved). We can not touch our food, put the touch on someone for money, feel a touch of envy or sadness, add a touch of paprika, have a touch of the flu, let the candlelight provide just the right touch, but told not to touch anything, touch off an uproar, touch upon something in conversation, touch up the scratches on our car, add finishing touches to the flower arrangements, and touch base with someone.

We cannot touch something without being touched by it in the very same instant. We cannot be touched without touching. Walking barefoot, our feet kiss the earth with every step, and the earth kisses right back and we feel it.

For all that, we tend to be specialists at being out of touch a great deal of the time, and out of touch with just how out of touch we can be. It is easy to eat without tasting, miss the fragrance of the moist earth after a rain even touch others without knowing the feelings we are transmitting. How many times have you unwittingly and improbably walked into the door you were opening, or inadvertently banged your hand or elbow on something, or dropped something you didn’t know you were carrying because in that moment, you weren’t actually all there, and so were momentarily out of touch even with the spatial and temporal orientation of the body, which normally we have covered without too much specific attention. And is it not the case that we are sometimes equally and grossly out of touch with what we call the “outside” world, with our effects on other people, with what they care about and may be going through and feeling, even when it is written on their faces or apparent in their body language, if only we were available to ourselves to take notice.
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to our Senses.

* * * * *

The Lightest Touch

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then, like a hand in the dark,
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line,
you can feel Lazarus,
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
– David Whyte
Everything is Waiting for You


There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
– Ursula K. LeGuin

In the June 2009 e-newsletter on Wise Listening, I related psychologist Paul Ekman’s story of lifelong anger dissipating for a full seven months at the touch of the Dalai Lama’s hand on his arm. Others have recalled the precise instant of a touch by the Dalai Lama, considered by his followers to be the embodiment of compassion, the warm feeling that rippled through their bodies, and the lasting change this contact introduced in their lives.

In Born To Be Good, Dacher Keltner relates his own story of meeting the Dalai Lama as they participated together on a panel at the Dalai Lama Peace Center in Vancouver, Canada. Emerging out of a bow and clasped hands and an embrace of his shoulders:

“I had a Darwinian spiritual experience. Goose bumps spread across my back like wind on water, starting at the base of my spine and rolling up to my scalp. A flush of humility moved up my face from my cheeks to my forehead and dissipated near the crown of my head. Tears welled up, along with a smile.

“For several weeks after, I lived in a new realm. My suitcase was missing at the carousel following the plane flight home – not a problem. I didn’t need those clothes anyway. Squabbles between my two daughters about the ownership of a Polly Pocket or about whose back-bending walkover best matched the platonic idea – no bristling reaction on my part, just an inclination to step into the fray and to lay out a softer discourse and sense of common ground. The frustrated person behind me inn the line in the bank, groaning in exasperation – no reciprocal frustration, no self-righteous sense of how to comport oneself in more dignified fashion in public; instead, an appreciation of what deeper causes might have produced such apparent malaise. The people I saw, the undergrads in my classroom, parents at my daughters’ school, preschool teachers walking little groups of three-year-olds in hand-holding chains around the streets of Berkeley, those parallel parking their cars, recyclers picking up cans and bottles, the homeless shaking their heads and cursing the skies, people in business suits reading the morning paper waiting for a carpool ride, all seemed guided by remarkably good intentions. My [sense of well] being] was approaching infinity.

“I recalled a saying of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: ‘At the most fundamental level our nature is compassionate. Cooperating, not conflict, lies at the heart of the basic principles that govern our human existence.’

“I wish I could do full-body fMRIs’ of people’s nervous systems in settings through which His Holiness moves. If I could, I would find that his touch produces a colorful activation of goodwill in the brain and body. His Holiness’ vocabulary of touch is as precise and imaginative as a chess mater’s representation of the possibilities on the 64 squares of the chessboard. As we concluded our panel in Vancouver, the Dalai Lama tickled Paul Ekman in the ribs. In the midst of a discussion about neural plasticity, he squeezed neuroscientist Richie Davidson’s earlobe. His Holiness is known to fall to the floor and wrestle with Desmond Tutu, as thought the two were pre-teen brothers. His Holiness’ genius at touch is a window into an ancient communicative system by which we can alter others [sense of well-being], spreading health and happiness to others.

* * * * * *
Richie Davidson, with Jim Coan, did study the effect of touch on reducing stress and creating well-being at his Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Women volunteers were told they would be given a slight but unpleasant electrical shock on their ankles while their brain responses of anxiety and pain were monitored in an fMRI scanner.

Each woman in the control group was alone during the procedure and registered anxiety before and pain during the shock. In a second group, each woman held the hand of a “stranger” (the lab technician) during the procedure, which resulted in the reactions of anxiety and pain being reduced somewhat. But in the third group, each woman held her husbands’ hand during the procedure, the pleasurable security of holding the hand of someone who loved them (and the oxytocin thus released) down-regulated their stress and overrode both anxiety and pain. The women instead experienced peacefulness throughout the procedure. Touch turned off the threat switch in the brain.

* * * * * * *

Chris shared this story about touch in our Wednesday evening meditation group. Prisoners trained dogs to be paired with soldiers returning from Iraq, to help the soldiers afflicted with post-traumatic stress from combat to re-enter American society and re-adjust to non-combat lives. A win-win for the prisoners, the soldiers, and the dogs. In one story, a car backfiring triggered an ex-soldier into a PTSD flashback of an IED explosion. He sat frozen, unable to move or speak. His wife did what she had been trained to do, holding him and speaking to him in a soothing voice, to help him calm down and re-connect. But it was when the dog from this program climbed on his lap and began to lick his face that the man was able to respond, re-engage with himself and his wife in the present moment. (I wish I had more details of what program, where, who’s doing the research, but the story rings true; we know a loving touch from a loving pet can bring us out of a trance, back to awareness and peace of mind in the present moment.)

* * * * *

Another story from a different meditation group. A mother and young child were watching their neighbor across the street sit on his front porch day after day, slumped and somewhat inert in grief over the recent death of his wife of many years. Finally the little boy went over to the neighbor, climbed up on his lap, and sat with him quietly. From across the street the mother watched the man begin to softly sob. After about ten minutes he stopped, gave the boy a gentle hug, and stood up to tend to some things in the yard. When the little boy returned to his mother, she asked him what he had said to the man. “I didn’t say anything. I just sat with him. I helped him cry.”

* * * * * *

Many years ago my own father had a stroke big enough to land him in the hospital for a few days, and a skilled nursing facility after that. While there at the SNF, my dad became suicidal. The staff called me at 5:30am to come pick him up. In his confused mental state, even at the age of 80, he had managed to climb out onto a second story deck overlooking the courtyard and was threatening to jump.

When I arrived at the nursing facility, I managed to get my dad into my car to take him home. But I was completely bewildered about what to do in the next few days. Before I could get in the car myself, I burst into tears. I collapsed right there on the curb of the parking lot, and just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. All the grief and fear and confusion and anguish just welling up and spilling over. The nurse who had discharged my dad saw me out the window; she came out of the building and gently took my hand as she sat with me on the curb. For the next 30 minutes, she never said a word really; she just held my hand with one hand; her other hand gently stroking my back. (Now I know how significant her touching me there, at the back of the heart, was.)

The nurse stayed present with me as I cried out wave after wave of grief, fear, confusion, anguish. Eventually the waves of tears subsided. I looked up into her eyes and saw simply someone seeing me, seeing my pain, someone caring for me, caring for my pain, caring for all the pain of all the family members who had ever gone through what I was going through, all the pain of the human condition. No matter what the next moment brought, in that moment I knew my struggle was completely seen, understood, accepted. The nurse’s unspoken empathy and gentle touch allowed me to normalize my experience and re-group.

* * * * * *

Another story from Dacher Keltner, about the power of touch to mitigate aggression.

“I estimate that I’ve played approximately 4,500 games of pickup basketball, twice a week for twenty-five years. Ten bodies, each weighing on average 200 pounds, crash into each other for hours at a time, with a force that sprains ankles, breaks noses, blackens eyes and wears down the knee cartilage until it’s bone on bone in the middle of life.

“In those 4,500 games, where loud voices and thrown elbows reign, I have never once seen a fight break out. Sure, there are dramatic confrontations, and many a shove under the boards. But I’ve never seen a punch thrown or anything remotely resembling unadulterated aggression. That level of violence (0) proves pickup basketball to be more peaceful than randomly sampled interactions between marital partners, siblings, family members at Thanksgiving, crowds celebrating their football team’s triumph, people parking to go to the theater. At the end of the game, there is most typically laughter, respect and a faith in the human project. The rest of the day is more peaceful.

“Why? Because the violent physicality of basketball is transformed by touch. Teammates bump fists when the game begins. During the game opponents lean into each other, hand check to the hips, push forearms to the back and chest. Defenders bear-hug to stop a drive down the lane. Opponents slap rumps at a good play. There are high fives at the games’ end. The visible physics of basketball is incommensurably violent – bodies colliding at near-full speed. The language of touch in the pickup game neutralizes the aggressive intent of the actions; there’s a humming vibration that shifts the physiology toward higher, loftier values.”


Dacher Keltner also notes the evolutionary reason for the power of touch. “Because we are “naked apes”, our hairlessness makes our skin the most remarkable interface between our inner and outer worlds. It is the platform for intimacy and sexual relations. It is a medium in which individuals in conflict channel aggression. We soothe and reassure with hands on skin.”

We experience the healing power of touch daily through pats on the back, handshakes, hands resting on shoulders, an arm around another, playful nudges, embraces. We can intentionally increase the number of touches we experience during a day. And we can become more aware of taking in the power of the touch as it happens.

“It is not just the air that touches us, although its touch is constant. Our body touches every chair it sits on, every piece of floor or ground it stand on, every piece of clothing in contact with the skin, every tool our hands wield, every thing we attempt to grasp, lift, receive or deliver.

“However we touch and whatever we touch, we can touch either mindfully or mindlessly. In any given moment, we have a chance to know directly, through awareness, how we ourselves are being touched, and how we are feeling and what we are sensing from moment to moment as a consequence of both how we are touching and how we are being touched. This is the landscape of touch, the touchscape.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

May these simple exercises improve your touchscape.

1. You can do this simple exercise to increase touch awareness by yourself or with a partner. Hold your right hand over your (your partner’s) left arm, not quite touching, just enough to graze the arm hairs. Notice any sensations in your hand or arm. Then place your hand lightly on the arm, sensation but no pressure. Notice anything you are aware of, including emotional, behavioral or thought reactions. Push your right hand down on the arm just enough to feel some pressure. Notice any changes in your perceptions or interpretations. Push your right hand down on the arm enough to feel and move the muscles under the skin. Notice your experience. Push your right hand down on the arm hard enough to touch bone. Notice your experience. Slowly back out the layers of touch, noticing changes in your experience as you go, until your right hand is connected to the left arm only energetically; notice that, and lift your hand away.

2. Another exercise to expand the touchscape: lay comfortably on your back, flat on a bed, floor, or the earth. Feel your weight sink into the ground, floor, bed supporting you. A moment of refuge. Scan your awareness through your body, noticing the sensations of touch, how your heels touch the surface, the backs of your calves, your thighs, your buttocks, your middle back, your shoulders if you’re that flexible, your arms and hands, your head. Relax your jaw, let your eyes soften and float to the back of your head in their little hammocks. Notice from your body what it feels like to feel “grounded”. Not from any wishing it to be so, or striving from your psyche. Simply, notice the ground IS supporting your body; you can sink into it, becoming heavy, letting go. Notice all the parts of your body being supported by the parts of your body being held by the ground, your neck, your lower back, your knees, your toes. Breathe into any tension there, allowing those parts to feel supported, too.

3. Extension of above. As you lay comfortably on your back, place a thin pillow under your back, at the area of your heart center. Place your hand on your heart. Feel the warmth and pressure of your hands and the pillow. Breathe into your heart center between your two hands. Notice any warmth, any calmness, any sensations of solidity, fullness, between your hands. Allow any warmth, calmness, fullness, to grow even more warm, calm, full. Anchor these sensations in your body memory, repeating the exercise as many times as necessary to install this body memory as a healing somatic resource you can return to any time you feel disconnected, lonely, shaky.

This exercise can be done with a partner as well, you placing your hand under your partner’s back as they lie on the ground/floor/bed; them placing their own hand on their heart. And in reverse, your partner placing their hand under your back, you placing your own hand on your heart.

4. While describing this somatic resource to my friend Lynne, she spontaneously gave me a warm hug, intentionally placing her hand on my back at the area of my heart. We laughed as we realized, friends can do this any time, every time they meet and greet, they can consciously, compassionately connect and support.

5. A full-body, 20-second hug is enough to release oxytocin in the brain, calm down a revved up nervous system, and generate feelings of safety and connection. Most of us don’t feel comfortable with a full-body hug with anyone outside our partner, immediate family, closest friends. We do the A-frame hug of arms around the shoulders at best. Wherever you do feel comfortable exchanging a full-body hug, do that as often as you can.

6. There’s a region at the back of the neck near the top of the spinal cord where the vagus nerve, loaded with oxytocin receptors, resides. A gentle massage to that part of the neck (you can easily do this yourself) can be a potent trigger for the self-activated release of oxytocin, increasing feelings of goodness and well-being throughout the day.


Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner. W.W. Norton, 2009.

Dr. Keltner weaves together insights from the new studies of positive emotions in neuroscience, evolution, and philosophy. Includes highly readable accouonts of his own research into laughter, compassion, touch, awe, morality, etc.

Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and Our World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Hyperion, 2005.

“The journey toward health and sanity is nothing less than an invitation to wakeup to the fullness of our lives as if they actually mattered.” Dr. Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between mindfulness and our physical and spiritual well-being.

Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year by Cassandra Vieten. New Harbinger/Noetic Books, 2009. and

Mindful motherhood focuses on helping new moms be aware in the present moment, in their bodies, connected with the babies, even when the going gets rough.

Touch by Tiffany Field. MIT Press, 2003.

One of several books written by the premier expert in, and advocate for, touch research. A fabulous exploration of the therapeutic uses of touch and infant massage, as well as the psychological and developmental impacts of touch and touch deprivation from infancy through adulthood.

Juan Mann offered free hugs to passersby in Sydney, Australia. Cautious at first, eventually people by the hundreds took his offer seriously and received a free, friendly but respectful hug. When the police ordered him to stop, over 10,000 people signed a petition to have his privilege of offering hugs restored. Juan’s story was picked up by U.S. television on Good Morning, America. To date Juan has given thousands of free hugs. You can see for yourself how one man, Juan Mann, can change the world on this karmatube video.