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The Power of Touch - NYT article


By Andrew Reiner

Dec. 5, 2017

I had thought about reaching for my father’s hand for weeks. He was slowly dying in a nursing home, and no one who visited him — from my mother, his wife of 42 years, to my three siblings — held his hand. How do you reach for something that, for so many decades, hinted at violence and, worse, dismissal?

In the flickering gray from the old black-and-white movies we watched together, I finally did it. I touched my father’s hand, which I hadn’t held since I was a young boy. His curled fingers opened, unhinging some long-sealed door within me, then lightly closed around mine. Before I left, I did something else none of the males in my family had ever done before. I leaned close to my father’s ear and whispered, “I love you.”

Since then, I have learned that many middle-aged American men share this discomfort with reaching for another man’s hand. But experts say that nonsexual touching contributes to greater well-being.

Touch is the first, and perhaps most profound, language we learn when we’re very young, says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Touch might have a more immediate impact than words, Dr. Field said in an email, “because it is physical and leads to a chain of bioelectric and chemical changes that basically relax the nervous system.”

The benefits of nonsexual touch read like a 19th-century tonic advertisement, except that the outcomes have been scientifically vetted. Touch has been found, among other things, to reduce stress, heart rate and blood pressure. Touch has even been found to lower the level of cortisol in the body (especially in women) which, when elevated, impedes our working memory and, most critically, the immune system’s resiliency.

It should be great news that something free, widely available and lacking in harmful side effects is so good for us, but it gets ignored in a touch-averse culture like ours. Yes, Americans are generally gregarious but, unlike, say, Italians, Greeks, the French or Latinos, that friendly intimacy is largely limited to our mouths. According to Jay Skidmore, former chairman of the psychology department of Seattle Pacific University, “social-cultural trends in America have focused for decades on reducing touch.”

Of course, it would not be surprising if recent allegations of sexual assault by public figures make people even more skittish about initiating or receiving physical contact.

Indeed, many men self-police their hands around each other. In younger men this manifests in the ubiquitous “No homo!” response if they accidentally touch another guy, and in older men it translates into the same awkward discomfort (read: fear) that I, and many men, experience when faced with reaching out to another male, even an intimate. Yet these reactions are a relatively modern phenomena. Men shared the same bed with strangers in early American taverns, and scholarship is unearthing letters — including ones from Abraham Lincoln — revealing how men sometimes nurtured same-sex friendships that were more emotionally and physically intimate in nonsexual ways than the relationships they shared with women. Some 19th-century tintypes, such as those collected in the book “Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection,” illustrate this.

The psychologist Ofer Zur notes that for most 20th- and 21st-century American men, physical contact is restricted to violence or sex. As the sociologist Michael Kimmel, who studies masculinity, said in an email, touch between straight men can occur only when physical contact “magically loses its association with homosexuality” — as happens in sports.

The fear that girds the lack of platonic touch among American men also fuels the destructive force of their hands, a 2002 study in the journal Adolescence found. Dr. Field was the lead author of the study, which looked at 49 cultures. “The cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence,” she said. But “those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no adult violence.”

A big part of the problem for men is how they handle that 21st-century scourge that kills men younger than it does women: stress. Women employ a tend-and-befriend approach that invites confidence in and cooperation with people who can help them externalize their struggles and find succor.

Not men. When faced with stressors, they tend to turn cowboy, growing stoic, emotionally withdrawn and, too often, isolated. (It’s true that, unlike men, women receive higher levels of oxytocin — the calming, bonding hormone and neurotransmitter — when they are stressed, which enhances their ability to cope. But research shows that men’s, as well as women’s, levels of oxytocin rise when they receive affectionate touch from their partner — and that with doses of oxytocin through the nose, fear is reduced and degrees of trust, generosity and empathy rise.)

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