I recently heard about a minister who on Mother’s Day encouraged his congregation to give a widow a hug. He said, “Many widows go on day after day without any significant human touch.” And, according to scientific research, it is well documented that human touch can improve your health.
“Stimulating touch receptors under the skin can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress,” says Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University. According to Hertenstein, “Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting.”
One study from the University of North Carolina found that women who hugged their spouse or partner frequently (even for just 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure, possibly because a warm embrace increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Over time, lower blood pressure may decrease a person’s risk for heart disease. (Source: April 2013 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)
You might say, “But Judd, that’s for widows and other women, i.e., the weaker sex. Real men don’t need to be touched.” I say, “Nay, nay.” Few would argue that 15-time NBA all-star and world champion (2008) Kevin Garnett is one of the most dominant players in the league. Yet, a UC Berkeley study conducted in the 2008-2009 season found that he is the “touchiest” player in the league (followed by Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer).
Michael W. Kraus led a research team that coded every bump, hug and high five in a single game played by each team in the National Basketball Association. “Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys,” says co-author Dr. Keltner.
If a high five or an equivalent can in fact enhance performance, on the field or in the office, it may be because it reduces stress. A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps create a sensation of trust and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
In the brain, the prefrontal cortex helps regulate emotions, which allows the brain to focus on other primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”
“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem-solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”
Now, if 25-to-35-year-old men in the prime of their athletic careers can benefit from touch, how much more could touch benefit your aging dad? What I mean is that fathers, as they age, can start losing their eyesight and/or their hearing. And, science tells us that as we start to lose one or more of the five senses, the brain will rely more on information from other senses.
For example, if you lose your eyesight, research has shown that the part of your brain that used to process images has been freed up to process other information. Some of it will be used to help navigate through sound and touch, but some processing power will help you smell and taste better — not as obviously linked to replacing your ability to see.
Similarly, if you lose your hearing, your brain will do a similar thing, though not simply to compensate for hearing loss, but, again, to better process information. Essentially, your brain rewires itself to take advantage of unused processing power — the remaining senses share what has been freed up.
Here’s my point — if we as people (both men and women) start to lose our sight and/or our hearing as we age, it only makes sense that we would need more significant touch in order to feel valued or loved.
“But Judd, what do you mean ‘significant touch’?” Well, I’m not a doctor nor a scientist, but I can share a couple of personal experiences that I would call “significant touch.”
Several years back, I was chatting with some friends in the men’s locker room at the Bel-Air Country Club. A hand warmly grabbed my shoulder, and as it squeezed me gently he said, “Excuse me, sir.” I was in his way, and as I turned to allow him to get by I noticed it was actor James Garner (you know, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” and over 50 theatrical films).
It’s no wonder he was so successful. He obviously knew the power of a kind word and a gentle touch. I asked myself, “Would I have been so polite to a stranger who was carelessly standing in my way?” To be quite honest, probably not. But I hope to get there one day. That was a “significant touch” — I think my golf game was even better that day.
Another time I was standing against the wall at a church revival conference. I felt a pat on my back. Actually, it was more of a firm, but friendly slap. It almost knocked me over. I felt it to my core. I looked over and saw Lou Engle, an American Charismatic Christian leader, best known for his leadership of The Call and the International House of Prayer.
Lou had a great, big smile on his face. His “significant touch” (to put it mildly) and his big smile communicated love and acceptance to me. The presence of God was in the auditorium and somehow Lou’s jolting pat on the back launched me deeper into richness and fullness of the moment.
In my third and last personal experience that I wanted to share, I was an observer (not the toucher or the touchee). I was at a nursing home getting some legal documents signed by an elderly Japanese man after he had suffered a stroke. The family wanted to qualify him for Medi-Cal in case he wasn’t able to return home after his 100 days of Medicare coverage.
I observed the daughter constantly touching her father’s back and shoulder. And when he was able to sign his name, she smiled at him, lifted her hand and said, “High five.” Her father put down the pen, smiled, and gave her a high five. She then gave him a big hug, saying to him, “I’m so proud of you.” Quite frankly, I was very impressed. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Rarely, do I see a kind word and a gentle touch used so powerfully. This Father’s Day, I would like to encourage you to remember the power of a kind word and gentle touch. Even if your father is not in a nursing home, let’s all remember that “Fathers are people too,” and give your dad a big hug.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.