The role of touch in enhancing physical and mental wellbeing

Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, researchers have unveiled the profound effects of consensual touch on both physical and mental health. This extensive analysis sheds light on the potential benefits of touch interventions and raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of touch and its impact on wellbeing.

The study, led by researchers from the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the University Hospital Essen, delved into a comprehensive analysis of numerous studies exploring the effects of touch interventions. The findings of this analysis provide compelling evidence that consensual touch significantly enhances physical and mental wellbeing, yielding notable reductions in pain, anxiety, depression, and stress among adults. Notably, individuals with pre-existing physical or mental health conditions appear to derive even greater benefits from touch interventions, emphasizing the pivotal role of touch in providing much-needed support to those in need.

Commenting on the significance of the study, Packheiser, the first author, highlighted, “This is especially relevant considering how often touch interventions are overlooked.” The study also sought to identify the most effective forms of touch intervention, prompting Professor Keysers, director of the Social Brain Lab, to ponder, “What if you don’t have a friend or partner close by to hug you? Would touch from a stranger or even a machine also help? And how often?” Surprisingly, the research revealed that the identity of the person administering the touch, the manner in which it is delivered, and its duration do not significantly impact its effectiveness. Instead, the frequency of touch interventions emerged as a crucial factor, with more frequent touch yielding greater benefits, thereby emphasizing the potential impact of even brief, regular touch interactions.

Intriguingly, the study also explored the possibility of non-human touch interventions, uncovering that object or robot interventions can be equally effective at improving physical wellbeing. Frédéric Michon, the last author, expressed, “These results indicate that a touch-robot, or even a simple weighted blanket has the potential to help those people.” However, the study also revealed that these interventions may be less effective in addressing mental wellbeing, underscoring the significance of emotional connection associated with touch.

While the study delved into the impact of touch on newborns, it highlighted the pivotal role of the person conducting the touch intervention, revealing that touch from a parent yielded greater benefits compared to touch from a healthcare worker. Packheiser emphasized the potential impact of this finding, particularly in addressing high death rates due to premature births in certain countries, indicating that a baby benefits more from the touch of their own parent, offering a readily implementable form of support for the baby’s health.

Despite these insightful revelations, the study also uncovered areas where research remains lacking, particularly in understanding the impact of touch across different age groups, including children and teenagers, as well as in specific clinical settings such as autistic patients. Michon expressed hope that these findings would guide future research to explore these lesser-known questions, including the potential impact of animal touch on wellbeing.