Our Sense of Touch and Our Emotions

Updated on November 3, 2017

It's a Windy Day

Our sense of touch is all around us, yet we rarely think about it.

You go outside and the wind is slapping against your face. You feel your hair blowing around and getting out place. You hold tightly to your papers so they won’t get swept away by the wind. You feel something at your feet and you fall on the cement, scraping your knee. The pain radiates through your body and then a friend comes over and lifts you up by your arm. They dust you off and give you a hug. You feel a little embarrassed for them seeing you fall. You feel your cheeks get hot from the embarrassment. But thanks to the hug, your knee hurts a little less.

Your sense of touch is applied in each of these situations. The only time you became aware of your sense of touch probably would have been when you felt pain. Yet our sense of touch is working all the time, in all the things we do.

Touch and Human Contact

As one of our five senses, touch helps us understand our world through a complex sensory system of receptors that transmit data from stimuli to the brain. But touch is much more than this. Through human contact, our sense of touch is completely and integrally connected to how we feel and how we communicate. This is probably why we call our emotions feelings.

There is a direct correlation between touch and our emotions. Through touch, we bond with others, we gain warm feelings, and build a sense of trust. The power of holding someones hand, the message in a hug, the feeling of being caressed, the significance of a pat on the back, the meaning of a kiss, and the myriad of ways we make human contact are the basics of communication. Through personal contact, we allow others into our intimate space. How we react depends on the circumstances of who, what, where, when and why it occurs.

Touch Alerts Us to Danger

Through tactile sensation, we sense the world around us. From the time we are babies, and throughout our lives, we learn through touching. Touch, like all our senses, alerts us to danger, tells us about us and our environment by perceiving temperature, pain, pressure, and streteching, mainly through our largest organ in our body, our skin, and muscles, which has very sensitive nerve cells. These nerve cells can even be triggered by slightest movement of the hair on our skin. Touch allows us to interact with our environment.

Our brain receives signals from our body’s touch receptors, which travel along our peripheral nerves connected to our spine. The spine sends these signals to the brain stem, thalamus, and cerebral cortex via small fibers.

The size of the areas in the sensory cortex correlate to the areas in our body that get more sensations. Larger areas of the sensory cortex are devoted to areas like our hands, which touch nearly everything. Smaller cortical regions represent less sensitive parts or our body. Our fingertips, for example, are able to discriminate much better than many other parts of our body. The neurons in the brain process this information and sends signals back to the spinal cord. Through this system, we perceive temperature, pain, pressure, stretch we gain a physical awareness, which helps our coordination, spatial awareness and even how to position our body. Tactile sensations lets us know the shape, size, texture, and other characteristics of an object.

Touch is the way we engage in our environment, and also provides and internal feedback cycle for our brain to communicate with our own body. When we touch something, or make a body movement from an order from our brain, the return signal lets our brain know, we have followed an order. Our sense of touch relies on superior communication between our brain’s impulses and our body’s response.

Children Learn by Touching

The Sense of Touch is Important to Children and Adults

Any movement, requires an intense awareness of our own body through and internal for of tactile sense. Touch is the first sense an embryo develops.

As infants grow, it is through touch they learn about their environment and also bond with other people. Our sense of touch works continually from birth through old age. Touch helps us learn, protects us from harm, helps us relate to others, allows us to experience pleasure and pain. Positive touch, also, is a necessity for healthy development. Infants require touch to survive and thrive.

Through touch we learn about our surroundings. We can change our behavior based on our evaluation of the environment.

How We Interpret through Our Sense of Touch

The type of touches we experience throughout our life affect the detailed arrangement of these sensory neurons within our brain. This affects our interpretation and response to different touch. Touching something repetitively strengthens the signals in our brain and makes that particular neural communication easier to pass forward. The more often we experience a certain type of touch, the better our brain becomes at interpreting that information. If we never touch something, those sensory neurons will never be activated and the nerve pathway will never strengthen.

How our neural pathways develop, affects our behavior and health. Affectionate touch is vital for the physical, mental, and emotional development of children. In the early to mid 1900s, doctors termed a phenomenon called “failure to thrive syndrome”. In orphanages and hospitals, the majority of babies and young children developed abnormally and/or died, even though they received good food, a clean environment, and proper medical care.

The parts of our body we use the most with our sense of touch, take up larger areas in our brain

The size of the areas in the sensory cortex correlate to the areas in our body that get more sensations. Larger areas of the sensory cortex are devoted to areas like our hands, which touch nearly everything. Smaller cortical regions represent less sensitive parts or our body.

The Famous Monkey Experiment

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow, a psychologist studied the isolation effects of infant monkeys. The monkeys were separated at birth from their mothers and siblings. They were kept in clean cages, with adequate food. Two “surrogate mothers” were put in their cage. One was a wire mother with a bottle of milk. The other was a wooden mother covered in a terrycloth, with no milk. The infant monkeys preferred the terrycloth mother for hours, even when they desired food. They would quickly run over to the wire monkey for milk and then run back to the terry cloth mother.

This study showed the need for touch was a stronger desire than the need for food. Mother infant bonding and affectionate touch is important to an infant’s development. The monkeys who were deprived of touch experienced developmental and behavioral abnormalities. These monkeys would hold themselves and rocked back and forth, and were disinterested in their environment. They didn’t socialize with other monkeys, were extremely shy, and avoided being touched. When they did interact with other monkeys, they did so aggressively. It was hard for them to find sexual partners, and they couldn’t mate properly. They were also abusive to their mates and offspring.

Touch deprivation has many negative impacts. Affectionate touch is integral to a proper development. Evidence in further studies have shown a lack of affection can cause depression, memory deficits, violence, and health issues.

Our Sense of Touch and Lower Stress

How can this sense of touch impact us so greatly. The Attachment theory relates parental bonding with affectionate touch. Touch is correlated with emotional neglect. Lack of touch causes improper development of emotional bonding, which can cause unhappiness and a lack of trust in others. As a child grows older, they have difficulty relating to other people, which causes more unhappiness and more

There is also a correlation between affectionate touch and how it lowers stress and anxiety levels. Touch deprivation raises our stress level. Stress increases cortisol and norepinephrine, our stress hormones. Chronically high levels of cortisol adversely affects the normal brain tissue development, especially the hippocampus. It is the hippocampus that is involved in memory and learning. This may explain why children who don't receive affectionate touch have learning difficulties.

Stress also contributes to poor health and abnormal growth, which is also seen in children who are touch deprived. Some theories believe touch deprivation changes brain chemistry and may cause depression. Positive touch on the other hand is associated with better learning, higher language processing, improved problem-solving, and faster physical recovery from illnesses. Other positive effects are decreased stress, better physical growth in infants and children, less cardiovascular disease in adults, and less pain experienced with those with chronic diseases.

Massage therapy is a form of touch and has been showing to be an effective treatment for a multitude of physical and psychological issues. Although there is not much research done on the sense of touch, because of the difficuly of isolating this sense, what has been done has shown that affectionate touch has the power for the positive development.

It is important to be mindful about our senses. Our sense of touch affects us physically and emotionally. Make today a great day. Get a hug, give a hug and magically you everyone will feel better.

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      • toknowinfo profile image
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        toknowinfo 9 months ago

        Hi Denise, I totally agree with you. Touch is such an important sense in so many ways. Thanks for your input.

      • denise.w.anderson profile image

        Denise W Anderson 9 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

        Touch is a vital part of our everyday lives. When something happens to us, in the way of an injury, where we are deprived of the ability to touch and feel, it extends the healing process. Touch is an integral part of emotional expression and regulation.

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