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The Power of Touch
Understanding the Body-Brain Connection
By Cathy Ulrich
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2006. Copyright 2006. Associated Bodywork and Massage
Professionals. All rights reserved.
I can't tell you how glad I was to see your name in my calendar this week," said Elaine as she rushed into my treatment
room. "I've been really stressed at work -- the timing's perfect for a session." "Any specific areas you want me to check today?" I asked.
"I guess mainly my neck and shoulders, whatever you find," she said. She lay down on the table, and we both took a deep breath as I gently contacted her neck with an open palm. Before long, she was breathing deeply, relaxed and calm, on the verge of sleep.
A single mom with teenagers, Elaine's life revolves around work and caring for her kids with little time for herself -- and very
little time spent receiving touch from another human being. When a friend gifted her with a bodywork session a year before,
Elaine found that this single session had done more for relieving her stress than a week's vacation. Since then, she's been
coming regularly for monthly sessions. We work out the kinks in her body, but more importantly, she gets touch in a safe
environment -- nurturing that goes beyond getting rid of physical pain.
Bodywork and relaxation go together, but why? What is it about an hour-long bodywork session -- even one focused on pain
relief or structural alignment -- that creates such a sense of well-being, calm, and energy? Why do we as human beings crave
the touch of another?
Whether in giving or receiving, touch is as essential to human survival as is food. Infants deprived of touch, even when they are
getting adequate nutrition, will fail to thrive. Elders isolated by loss of partners and friends become depressed not only because
of the absence of social interaction, but also because of the simple loss of being touched.
We calm our pets by stroking them, we greet each other with a hug or a handshake, and we soothe our children by holding
them. No other form of connection is as powerful and universal as touch.
Skin and the Brain
The adult human lives inside an envelope of about 18 square feet of skin. Every square inch houses thousands of nerve endings
and various kinds of sensory receptors, all working to tell the brain about its surroundings. The cold of an ice cube, the softness
of a cat's fur, a warm breeze, the caress of a loved one -- all of these feelings are possible because of our skin.
Oil versus water, hot versus cold, dull versus sharp, wet versus dry -- our skin tells us about our environment and ourselves.
When we touch something with our fingers, we're not only sensing the object, we're also feeling our own skin, our own
In the first few days of an embryo's life, the cells that eventually become a fully formed baby divide into three layers. The
endoderm (inside layer) eventually becomes the internal organs, the mesoderm (middle layer) becomes the muscles and bones,
and the ectoderm becomes the skin and nervous system. The brain and skin come from the same layer, and they develop
together, not only before birth, but well into the first year of life.
When a baby is held, cuddled, and breast-fed, she's getting crucial stimulation to build neural connections between her skin
and her brain. By receiving touch from family or caregivers, she in turn learns how to touch and can then explore the world and
her relationship to it. Touch during these early formative months builds our complex and sophisticated nervous system so that
throughout life we can feel an extensive variety of textures and temperatures and be able to locate exactly where on our bodies
this touch occurs.
Lab studies have shown that animals given regular stroking and petting develop larger brains, stronger bones and muscles,
better immune systems, and remain healthier as adults than those deprived of touch when young.
Study after study has shown that touch is not only important for development, but is crucial to survival. James H.M. Knox of
Johns Hopkins Hospital reported in 1915 that babies left in orphanages and given proper nutrition died at a rate of about 90
Other studies of the same era confirmed these findings and showed that those babies who did survive were often
mentally handicapped and stunted in their growth. These valuable studies helped institutions understand the importance of
touch. When staff was added to provide enough time for each child to be held, handled, and touched, mortality rates droppeddramatically.