A few weeks ago I put up a post about the benefits of touching (Read here: 4 reasons people who hug are healthier and happier). (And read this sweet little book on the hug – The Art of Hugging.)
This left a lot of our community wondering why.
Why is it so important for us to be touched?
Is touch paleo?
ABSOLUTELY touch is paleo!
Here’s 3 reasons why:
1. Touch is the first sense humans develop
Whether you know it or not, touch was the first of your senses to develop, and remains one of the most important for successfully navigating the world. In short, the body cares about touch. A lot.
Touch is the first of the body’s senses to develop inside the womb; it develops 6-9 weeks after conception, which is two months before the next sense, hearing. It is also one of the most important senses (if not the most important) while a newborn baby. Research strongly suggests that human beings are born with a need for physical contact. Without it we suffer severe psychological, cognitive, and physiological dysfunction.
2. Primates (us included) spend a significant portion of their lives grooming
Primates spend up to half of their time grooming one another. (Grooming is what we see when monkeys sit around picking bugs and debris out of each other’s hair and skin. It is important in part because of the cleaning – but actually much more so because of the physical touch.)
Grooming builds trust, solidifies social order, and facilitates sexual activity. It has been shown, not surprisingly, that male macaques which groom females get more sex than those which don’t. Giving affection to primates–whether monkeys or humans–makes them feel safe, comfortable, and loved.
(Read more about the history and evolution of grooming in this amazing book.)
Interestingly, primates also groom when they are feeling bored. This means that it is not just a survival strategy but something they actively enjoy. When everything is hunky dory for a clan, primates will often nod off while being groomed.
These primates are both our cousins and our ancestors. We have not lost this need, not by a long shot.
In some ways, of course, it has changed shaped. As humans began to develop larger social groups, to go out on hunting expeditions, to spend time foraging, and to congregate around fires, so the theory goes, people developed more unique ways to get their neurotransmitter fix than simple touch. Simple touch requires lots of leisure time, which humans don’t necessarily have.
Other things which have similar neurochemical effects on humans include singing, physical activity, and dancing, especially when done in sync with another human being.
But the need for touch remains. This is because….
3. light, intimate brushing elicits a unique physiological response.
As great as singing, physical activity, and dancing are for human beings, “grooming” has its own specific physiological response. “Grooming” here for humans means any kind of affection physical touch that involves “light stroking.”
Other things that humans do, like sing and dance, are great for neurotransmitters, but touch is uniquely calming and effective. Touch shuts down the stress response and helps produce both oxytocin and serotonin, two very calming neurotransmitters.
(Here’s my favorite book on oxytocin: The Oxytocin Factor)
Oxytocin (with both hormonal characteristics and neurotransmitter type characteristics) is slightly more of a female molecule than male. It is typically associated with child labor and with breastfeeding. It helps women bond with their children, as it creates intense feelings of pleasure, affection, and trust. But it is also potent in all interactions involving human touch, including sex and simple, gentle stroking.
Vasopressin, the “male” counterpart that is still found in females but to a lesser degree, heightens memory, feelings of calm, and feelings of protectiveness.
So in response to touch, vasopressin. oxytocin, serotonin, beta-endorphin and other feel-g0od chemicals swirl together in a potent mixture not found in any other activity. Touch is uniquely powerful for human beings, and therefore uniquely compelling.
To that end, touch is incredibly important to us as animal beings. It bonds us together, it facilitates feelings of love, and it helps us be kind to one another. It is a part of the fabric of evolution from the tiniest mouse to the greatest gorilla, and everything in between.
So next time someone offers you a hug, take it. Maybe make it longer. Maybe give some more out. You may be surprised by how naturally peaceful (and maybe addictive) it feels.
And let me know what you think!! 🙂
For more on the evolution of hugs and touch see Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Human Behavior or How Many Friends Does One Person Need. For more on the act of hugging itself in a feel good and wonderful way see The Art of Hugging.
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