Tag Archives: neuropsychology of touch

The neuropsychology of touch

Harry Harlow was one of the first psychologists to scientifically investigate the nature of human love and affection. Through a series of controversial experiments, Harlow was able to demonstrate the importance of early attachments, affection, and emotional bonds on the course of healthy development.

His most famous experiment involved giving young rhesus monkeys a choice between two different “mothers.” One was made of soft terrycloth but provided no food. The other was made of wire but provided nourishment from an attached baby bottle.

Harlow removed young monkeys from their natural mothers a few hours after birth and left them to be “raised” by these mother surrogates. The experiment demonstrated that the baby monkeys spent significantly more time with their cloth mother than with their wire mother.  The infant monkeys went to the wire mother only for food but preferred to spend their time with the soft, comforting cloth mother when they were not eating. Harlow concluded that affection and touch were the primary force behind the need for closeness.

Humans have hugged each other since thousands of years. No one knows exactly when the first hug occurred between two human beings, but we do know that hugs have been in the human behavioral repertoire for at least several thousand years. In 2007, a team of archeologists discovered the so-called “Lovers of Valdaro” in a Neolithic Tomb near Mantua, in Italy. The lovers are a pair of human skeletons that have been buried holding each other in a tight embrace.  They have been determined to be approximately 6000 years old, so we know for sure that people already hugged each other in Neolithic times. Hugging and touch are in our DNA.

Many people are suffering from ‘skin hunger’ due to pandemic loneliness. Neuropsychology research shows that stroking a companion animal can certainly help. So can gently stroking one’s own arms and back (see ”The Power of the Self Hug”).

With gentle strokes or touch, afferent nerves, the sensory nerves that carry sensory stimuli from the physical source of touch, known as the peripheral nervous system, to our spine and brain (CNS) are activated, and release the pleasure neurotransmitters, oxytocin and dopamine.

When we are finally able to touch again, it is likely that we will be able to recover from the touch deprivation of the past year.  In the meantime,  finding ways to experience connection helps.

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