Gently stroking the velvet fur on my cat's nose, I recently marvelled at the amazing sense of touch. Cradling my baby nephew a few days later, a quote from Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin came to mind: "Touch comes before sight, before speech. It's the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth."

Touch evokes emotion, pleasure, pain and sensuality – it's a way of communicating; a basic form of human interaction that crosses social, cultural, gender and racial barriers.

How touch works

Touch occupies a disproportionately large area of the cerebral cortex in the brain. This is the part of the brain most directly responsible for consciousness, with essential roles in terms of perception, memory, thought, mental ability and intellect.

Although scientists still don't completely understand how it works, they know that our so-called somatosensory system involves sensory receptors and neurons, which are all linked to certain areas of the cerebral cortex.

Our sensory receptors occur all over the body, for example in the skin, muscles and organs. Thanks to these specialised cells, we're able to detect pain, temperature changes and pressure on the skin. The sensory neurons are nerves that take this information from the outside world, or from within the body, and communicate it to the brain.

In an area of the cerebral cortex called the sensory homunculus, there's a map that's linked to the different areas of the body. The more important the area is in terms of sensation, the bigger the space that’s allocated to it in the brain. For example, a large area is devoted to sensation in the hands, while a smaller area is allocated to sensation in the back.

Touch deprived?

We live in a world where we rely predominantly on hearing and vision to communicate: we type a quick text message, send an e-mail, pick up the phone to make a call, or wave a greeting to a colleague across the room.

It seems that we're communicating less and less through touch. Apart from technology that stands in the way, increased awareness of inappropriate touch is also discouraging positive touch.

But whether touch involves holding, hugging or the mere squeeze of a hand, both humans and animals certainly need it. Touch deprivation has been linked to the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia nervosa, violence in teenagers and growth deprivation.

Research in rats furthermore shows that tactile stimulation helps preterm rat pups gain more weight per day, spend more time awake and active, and show more mature habituation, orientation and motor skills.

Healing and therapeutic touch

Touch is widely recognised as a form of therapy. Midwives and doulas have long been known to use touch to comfort women in labour, and kangaroo mother care, which encourages continuous skin-to-skin nursing, has been shown to hold numerous health benefits for premature babies.

Much research has also been done on the benefits of therapeutic touch. Preliminary research shows that it can reduce pain in hospital patients, and decrease restlessness and stress in nursing home residents with dementia. Therapeutic touch is also being studied in patients receiving cancer treatments to find out if it can improve quality of life, boost the immune system, and reduce side effects.

In therapeutic touch, a therapist places his or her hands on or near the patient's body and consciously directs the person's energies by interacting with his or her energy field. It's based on the belief that energy flows through the human body, and that clearing or balancing the energy field promotes health.

Of course, massage can also be seen as a form of touch therapy. If you've ever had a massage, you'll know that it's a wonderful way of easing muscle tension and reducing stress.

Touching tips

Without realising it, you may be slightly touch deprived. Here are a few tips that will help you to return to this amazing sense:

    1. Tune into your sense of touch with the help of your partner: refrain from having sex for a few days and focus instead on touching each other in a non-sexual way. Close your eyes and ask your partner to stroke your arm, your hand, your face. Really concentrate on what it feels like. Then return the favour.

    1. Make a point of hugging your kids a few times a day. Both you and your children will benefit from this intimate form of touch. According to The Hug Therapy Book by Kathleen Keating, hugs help to build a relationship of physical intimacy between family members. Hugging your children will also help them understand that hugs aren't only for lovers, but for family and friends too. However, still respect your children's need for privacy and space.

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