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From king Midas to tai chi: How physical contact promote mental wellbeing


Social touch is the most fundamental form of physical contact, facilitating affection and empathy, and building a sense of attachment and intimacy. From skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn, to physical contact between two random individuals on the street, a touch can dramatically shape our physiology and behavior.

In a classical 1984 study1, Crusco and Wetzel showed how even a brief touch on the hands or shoulder can make restaurant costumers give a higher tip to the waitresses. This effect of touch on money spending was named after the golden touch of king Midas, and termed the Midas touch effect. Over time, more and more studies replicated these findings and found that people become more caring, compliant, or kind after having been touched. Following a physical touch, people agreed to watch over a large dog while its owners were away2, increase financial risk3, or allow free-riding on the bus4. It is acknowledged that social touch can evoke comfort, pleasure, or calm, can reduce pain perception5 and is essential for mental well-being6. However, not every social touch is positive, and in sometime touch can convey signals of anger, disgust, fear, harassment, etc.

Social touch pleasantness can be considered by its physical properties (softness, duration, location on the body, etc.), and by its context7,8 (identity of toucher, timing and willingness, other cues like face expression of the toucher, etc.). If we wish to effectively utilize the potential positive effect of social touch in an appropriate way, we should understand what makes a social touch pleasant, and in turn, how this pleasantness is processed in our brain.

Interestingly, our experience of the touch starts before we are actually being touched. The first phase of social touch processing involve an anticipatory response in the brain, and is tightly related to the context of the touch. The predication of the expected touch happens in two parts of the brain (the prefrontal and parietal cortex), which adjust other regions that will be activated once physical contact actually initiated. Once contact has started, the tactile information transmitted from the skin travels to the thalamus, which function as a relay station and further deliver this information to the brain regions primed by the prefrontal and parietal cortex. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on this anticipatory phase, and other relevant aspects will be discussed in the future.

The anticipatory response is of course heavily influenced by our environment and the context of the social touch. For that reason, it is important to set acceptable and appropriate circumstances for physical contact. One immediate solution is group physical activity, and ideally activities that involve direct physical contact.

As a big advocate of martial arts, I find these practices an excellent way to add some healthy physical contact to our lives. From judo and jujitsu to tai chi, all martial arts highlight a certain type of physical contact in line with the nature and purposes of the art. Interestingly, and in contrast to other circumstances, within a martial arts training there is a seemingly contradiction between the PURPOSE of the movement and the INTENTION behind it. on one hand, the associated movements are designed for defensive or offensive purposes, and are aggressive in nature. On the other, the intention behind it is far from being aggressive, and if anything, the practitioners are instructed to protect each other at all times. And this is exactly the type of context we would want to set, one that is both physical and safe.

One very accessible and useful way to employ such martial arts elements in our daily lives is taken from tai chi, a Chinese martial art. The idea is simple, stand in front of each other, with your right leg slightly backwards. Have the back of you right hands touch, palms facing your chest. Now gently press against your partner, while they resist your push, yet allow you to get closer. Once you are almost touching, your partner starts to push back, in the same way you just did. Repeat that for a few cycles, and switch hands (now your left leg will be slightly at the back and your left palms will touch). Let your body move with your hands. Exhale while pushing, inhale while receiving. Look at each other while you are playing. Smile. In the next posts we will elaborate on this exercise. This exercise is called Pushing Hands, or Tui Shou. Here you can find a nice short video of basic pushing hands.

The physiological effects of social touch are amazingly profound, with studies showing that a physical touch between romantic partners can even synchronize respiration and heart rate. In future posts we will dive into how we can use these insights to further promote ours and others mental wellbeing.


References:

1) Crusco A.H., Wetzel C.G. (1984). The Midas touch. The effecs of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 10, 512–7

2) Guéguen, N., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (2002). An Evaluation of Touch on a Large Request: A Field Setting. Psychological Reports, 90(1), 267–269.

3) Levav J, Argo JJ. Physical contact and financial risk taking. Psychol Sci. 2010 Jun;21(6):804-10.

4) Guéguen N, Fischer-Lokou J. Tactile contact and spontaneous help: an evaluation in a natural setting. J Soc Psychol. 2003 Dec;143(6):785-7.

5) López-Solà M, Geuter S, Koban L, Coan JA, Wager TD. Brain mechanisms of social touch-induced analgesia in females. Pain. 2019 Sep;160(9):2072-2085.

6) Gallace, A., Spence, C. (2016). Social Touch. In: Olausson, H., Wessberg, J., Morrison, I., McGlone, F. (eds) Affective Touch and the Neurophysiology of CT Afferents. Springer, New York, NY.

7) Erin H. Thompson & James A. Hampton (2011) The effect of relationship status on communicating emotions through touch, Cognition and Emotion, 25:2, 295-306

8) Ellingsen D-M, Leknes S, Løseth G, Wessberg J and Olausson H (2016) The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Front. Psychol.




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