Borrowed from the phrase “Pay it Forward,” the #TouchItForward movement encourages individuals to engage in a practice that many of us Westerners have forgotten — human contact.
When was the last time you touched a stranger? If that question just sounds creepy, or if you couldn’t help but squirm in response, then the touch-starved norms of North America and the West in general have gotten under your skin.
As Drew Hume writes in Elephant Journal, Western culture dissuades touch. Of course, Westerners are encouraged to touch family members, friends, and anyone in their inner circle, but those sharing a tender moment with a stranger are few and far between. #TouchItForward wants to turn this frosty Western social folkway on its head.
Science supports the stereotype about our culture, but begs for change. Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, PhD, the director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, claims in the Huffington Post that “most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting. Compared with other cultures, we live in a touch-phobic society that’s made affection with anyone but loved ones taboo.”
Indeed, research from behavioral scientists shows that most Americans need two to four feet of personal space to feel comfortable.
The Science of Touch
Despite Western discomfort, the importance of touch should not be ignored or devalued. The symptoms of a touchless life range from loneliness to death in the most extreme cases, according to Psychology Today.
Meanwhile, the benefits of touch are numerous and astounding. Neurologist Shekar Raman, MD explains that “a hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy.”
Regardless of whether you are the toucher or touchee, the physical contact puts a smile on your face.
Touch has the power to soothe individuals in stressful moments as well. The next time you apologize to someone, try simultaneously touching them. According to neuroscientist Michele Noonan, PhD, the action stimulates the insula, a region of the brain associated with emotional processing.
The engaged insula counteracts irritation in the moment, which bodes better for your apology.
In addition to emotional intimacy, activating the touch receptors underneath the skin lowers stress by decreasing blood pressure and cortisol levels. A study from the University of North Carolina documented a lowered blood pressure in women who frequently hugged their significant other for 20 seconds or more, according to USA Today. A sustained low blood pressure is linked to a lowered chance of heart disease.
The Big O
As the Huffington Post reports, touch holds nutritional value for us humans. One of the drivers behind the immense benefits of touch is Oxytocin, a chemical released into the bloodstream upon contact.
On the individual level, Oxytocin builds confidence, improves immune system function, relieves physical pain, reduces stress, impedes addiction and obesity, functions like an antidepressant, and enhances problem solving skills.
Interpersonally, the hormone develops trust, strengthens relationships (like the bond between parent and child), quells social anxieties, augments generosity, and promotes love. Who wouldn’t want a little extra Oxytocin in their life?
How strange does touching a stranger seem now? Given the gulf between the benefits and frequency of touch, Navina believes it is time to make a change.
Today or tomorrow, try to make intentional physical contact without crossing anyone’s boundaries. In order to absorb the emotional, physical, and relational benefits of touch, awareness must accompany contact. Be cognizant of what you receive and give with each touch, and you’ll begin to notice its impact.