A new experiment has been shown how touching can ease feelings of distress by changing brain function, says Dr Miriam Stoppard
Image: Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF)
Years ago when I was writing about the power of touch I came across research that blew my mind. The first was an experiment with baby chimps who’d rather cling to a fake soft cuddly mother chimp (because it felt like they were being touched) than feed. Touch was more important than food.
The second experiment showed if you touched someone, even fleetingly, they’d be more honest when asked about taking coins from a phone box.
And in a new experiment, scientists at Nottingham Trent University have shown how touch calms feelings of distress by changing brain activity.
They used a psychological therapy known as Havening Touch, which incorporates nurturing touch to help people recover from traumatic events.
Participants who’d had a moderately distressing thought or event, at least a month prior to the study, took part in online psychological testing and a face-to-face therapeutic session.
It’s an interesting approach.
Led by an experienced Havening therapist, a session begins by the participant thinking about their distressing event or memory. Next, they do about four cycles of activity, such as naming animals beginning with specific letters, singing a childhood song, thinking about photos of happy images and imagining watching a tennis match.
The practitioner touches the participant with a gentle sweeping movement over either their face, upper arms and shoulders, or palms during the activities.
Before, after and during the session participants reported their mood and had a brain scan, and mood improved.
Moreover, those who did a follow-up psychometric test two weeks later said they felt better mentally. Self-reported distress fell during the session with Havening Touch than a session without. This showed up in the brain scans as a rise in beta brain waves and a fall in gamma activity.
That reflects changes in a brain network known as the limbic system. It processes emotions, supporting the theory that Havening Touch helps relieve a sense of fear or threat.
Dr Alexander Sumich, Associate Professor in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, says: “Hormones and brain chemicals, such as oxytocin and dopamine, are released through our bodies with desired social contact, such as sharing a hug, and are critical to our psychological and physical wellbeing, supporting our immune system.
“Oxytocin also helps an area of the limbic system called the amygdala adaptively determine whether we should be fearful of something or not.
“We see incorporation of Havening Touch accelerates the reduction in distress, with even a single session.”
We gave up on touching with Covid – I hope we’ll start again.