It’s interesting how sometimes things just work out.
After weeks of thinking about what should I write next, and almost giving up on the idea that this month I will be able to post anything on my blog, today it came to me. Just like that, from an angle I did not see coming.
My brother in law has been talking about this great book on healthy eating called Green for Life, from the author Victoria Boutenko.
Well, today, finally, I went online and read the introduction and here is what I read:
“…when all we have is a compilation of someone else’s instructions, the best we can do is to hope and pray that the authors of such instructions were efficient in acquiring their knowledge and honest in their intentions. In other words, we hope that someone else cares for us more than we care for ourselves.
When we let others observe and reason for us, in a sense we consciously choose to stay blind and deaf. We become compelled to follow someone’s else’s instructions, one after another, and perform actions that do not make much sense to us. We submit to the authority of others. We give our power away.”
This touches me in so many ways, personally and professionally.
Personally I am a bit of a control freak and when it comes to me, my life, my body and my health I rarely (probably more like NEVER), take any advice just like that. No authority in this world will convince me that something should be good for me if I don’t feel like that is true - and here is why I say FEEL LIKE - because some times, I admit, it’s not about reason. Some times it’s about habits, perception, culture or just strong opinion. But you know what - even if that is true, it is MY truth and it works for ME.
There have been times when I decided to go against my “feelings” because reason told me I should do something - like for example - I had a surgery I was resisting for a long time, because finally I told myself I needed it in order to … When I was able to explain to myself that it is OK, and when I was able to accept that it was OK - it was OK (even though part of me did not like it).
Professionally, I have my own beliefs on how things should be done and more importantly, working with families, how THEY should do certain things. And this is the beautiful part - the self check part.
I love this profession because it keeps me in check and forces me to exercise patience and acceptance, with myself, as an instructor, and with myself as a human being.
Here is the big truth - the fact that I believe and think that the programs I teach could benefit everyone, is not necessarily true. It is MY belief and MY desire to somehow enrich everyone’s parenting path. Well, it may not be like that. I always, always need to keep reminding myself that instead of trying to persuade someone that she or he could really benefit, I can only present what I think and give a few reasons why. That’s it.
The second layer, if a parent does decide to take my class, is to then accept that they will and they should filter any information I give them through their own experience. How a person is going to accept, incorporate and implement the things I teach is really personal and that is how it is supposed to be!
Some parents will ask me - Why? or How? and rather than just giving MY answer to those questions, I will try to help them arrive at THEIR own answers. The reason I try (and sometimes fail) to do this, is because I am trying to empower the parents. I want them to have those A-HA moments which will not happen if I do it for them. Believing that they can do it and offering a direction they can choose to take, often will lead to those amazing empiric moments, that stay engraved in their psyche. That is when they learn, they grow as a parent and they deepen the connection with their child and with themselves.
So even though I do research, read and educate myself, even though I have the best of intentions and care a great deal for every one of you parents and your little ones, I always invite you to explore possibilities, give it time to sink in and really allow yourself to FEEL that it is the right thing for you and your baby. That will always make me more happy than an empty, complying nod or mechanical repetition of what is in front of you.
p.s. Last night, after writing this post, I went to bed with another book - How to Meditate, by Pema Chodron, and here is what I read:“ The Buddha said, “Don’t just take what I say as true because I say it. Really test it with you experience.”
” I’ve presented you with the basic techniques of meditation - and only you can really know how you are doing with the suggestions and instructions. You are the principle witness to you life, and you have to begin to trust your own insight into your mind in order to determine what your practice might need at any given moment. In a sense, we become our own meditation instructors.”
The Universe provides... ;)
My husband and I have a small raised bed in our local community garden. Today was a major gardening day - pulling the winter crop out, replanting and preparing the soil for the summer garden. We both had our hands in the dirt, we were out in the sun, moved our bodies and felt great. We were both saying out loud: ”This feels so good! Gardening is the best therapy. We did our exercise for today. Nature is the best treatment for the body and soul.”
We came home and I dealt with a mountain of different kinds of greens and herbs, cleaning, washing and packing. While doing that, looking at all the dirt in the sink, my mind took me out on a journey through some memories and thoughts I wanted to share here.
As much as it is fun and satisfying to work our plot of dirt and have our own grown “treats” I couldn’t be more grateful that I can go to a store and buy the food I need. I had family and friends who had to work the garden in order to have food to eat, and let me tell you, it is not easy at all. It is hard work and a constant fight with nature.
Why I am saying all this?
Because of the relationship between a civilized human and nature. The nature around us and in us. It feels great to be out in nature for awhile and then come back into the luxurious lap of civilization. Living in nature is not comfortable for everyone.
These thoughts took me further into the world of parenting. As an Infant Massage Instructor I was trained that the parent is the expert and that my role is to provide support and hold the space for the baby (the teacher) and the parent. I love this idea. I fully respect and abide by this principle. I do believe that most of the parents do have the ability to connect with what nature gave us all - instincts. I have faith in the strength and power of a parent. I would never want to take that away from them; if anything, I always try to remind them of how miraculously strong they are.
On the other hand I have seen how lost and scared they can be. I believe them when they say: ”Most of the time, I don’t know what I am doing”
I am happy that as a Musical Baby Bonding instructor I am trained to provide some guidance and advice. In the beginning, I saw this as a problem, wearing two hats, teaching two programs with the same goal but slightly different approach. Now, I love it! It’s a constant reminder to me to be present, observe, assess, understand and listen to what the parents are saying and not react but rather act accordingly. What I alway try to provide to parents, on one hand, are options and information, and on the other - support and understanding for their choices and decisions.
The natural parenting movements are so strong today, insisting that their ways are the good ways. I think that insisting that every mother knows what to do, that every mother should be in touch with herself and in tune with the baby is not always justified and sometimes it can even be wrong. Not every parent feels in harmony with the baby and in touch with one’s self. Some parents don’t feel the love and connection and there can be many things standing in their way. This is when I have to be very careful. I can’t always keep saying - “you know what to do, you know best, just keep on doing what you are doing, you are doing great...”. Sometimes a little guidance can go a long way. Sometimes, providing a different experience can mean a world of change.
I understand that nature is for some, a way of living, for others an escapade, and for others still, a complete unknown. During my classes, I try to follow whatever presents itself in front of me. Sometimes I will accomplish what I believe is a positive change and be so happy and proud. Other times I have to be OK with accepting and trusting. It is hard, but is it part of life and my life’s work.
Being in touch with our own nature is not easy for everyone. Also, one’s nature is not always what we think it should be. However, the universal principle still applies, as much to me as a teacher as to anyone being a parent - slow down, listen, observe and act instead of reacting. This way, if needed, you will get in touch with (your own) nature.
Today I read an article on hugs and it made me think about ….well hugs obviously… but more importantly, it made me think about different types of touches that I have been exposed to as a person, in my forty years of life.
I wish I could remember those first ones - my parents and my grandparents holding me in their arms after I was born.
I remember them later, as a girl, probably preschool age. And you know what is really scary - I remember when I got spanked and when my ears were pulled because I did something wrong. I don’t remember any hugs, tucking in at night, holding hands… I remember I fainted once and my father carrying me as I was coming back to consciousness. Wow… I never realized this before…. I don’t remember the good ones. I remember the traumatic ones. Like being taken away from the arms of my parent’s friend as she brought me to a different country to see my grandparents. I didn’t really know my grandparents so they were strangers. I remember my crying and screaming and I remember feeling their pain and confusion. I know that I had plenty of caring, tender, nurturing touches. I saw many photographs showing those moments. I know my parents and my grandparents were loving and by any stretch not abusive. But why don’t I remember this?
Not to be only negative, my memories changed after my life changed (so it looks like). When I was seven I started living with my grandparents. My grandmother became my mother. She took care of me, she gave me baths and combed my hair, she would wake me up and dress me in the mornings to go to school, and tuck me in at nights. I remember my dad would read to me at nights and even show me slides with beautiful drawings and tell me the stories behind them. But the hands I remember, the loving, warm, caring hands I remember were my grandmother’s. Some mornings she would not be able to wake me up (this happened only if she was sick) and my grand dad had to do it. I adored my grand dad but his rushed morning brush of my cheek was very different from my grandmother’s hand on my head. I did not enjoy those.
I also remember her brother who was a captain on big ships. He loved to pinch my cheek, lovingly, but his two fingers were like an iron clutch! It hurt me and my cheek would be red for a while.
What I remember most, were the nights when I was sick and my grandmother would feel my forehead to check if i had a fever and she would tuck me in tight.
When I grew up those moments were gone. I was a young woman. The family stopped giving me moments of affection reserved only for children. My grandmother’s hands got old, freckled and bony. They were still beautiful - long fingers, elegant nails and always warm. I would massage her hands when they were hurting, I would massage her feet and when it was really painful, I would massage her back.
We would sit together on a sofa and watch television. It was a one person sofa, and we loved it. It kind of squeezed us together. We would snuggle under a blanket and I would feel her body close to me. Simple moments of closeness.
Then there were all the weird, negative touches. Starting in middle school when boys get all crazy. Sickos groping me in public transportation (yes, #metoo), weirdos dancing too close in my dancing classes or the after class practices, the diving instructor and even some friends…
Or just the weird ones of learning to be intimate and being scared, nervous, insecure and torn between YES and NO.
Handshakes were also always interesting to me. The limp ones, the firm ones, the clenching ones, the sweaty ones and then the perfect ones that transmit security, confidence and openness. I still judge people by their handshake. I just automatically do.
Oh and the hugs…. The unwilling ones, the side ones, the short ones, the closed fists ones, the tense and awkward ones, and the beautiful ones - warm, tender, firm, long and you know… the ones that feel just right. But those are rare.
The experience of touch interaction is so rich, so complex and so important that a book could be derived. Who knows, maybe one day… for now, it’s just a rant inspired by an article.
In this present day, doing what I do, I come to the experience of the touch interaction with babies. I used to baby sit quite a lot, just a few years ago, and I got to touch babies so much. I carried them, I gave them baths, I dressed them, changed diapers, held them while asleep and to help them fall asleep. Now I mostly watch them. I observe the interactions between them and their parents. I support and I respect. I help when I can and I always do my best to hold the space for them. I just enjoy the pain and joy that comes with what I do. The good and the bad. Because it’s not all good. It never is.
Touch is part of who we are. Without the sense of touch we would not be alive. We could not survive. Think about it. Our skin protects us from and connect us to the world around us. It gives us so much information about air, water, objects, living creatures and other humans. It spells out the non verbal and shows the invisible. Touch defines us because it creates memories. It wires our brains. And it starts early, even before we can remember. That’s the scary and fascinating thing, all in one.
Think about your touch experiences throughout your life. See what comes up. Be surprised. And then, try to make some unforgettable memories for people around you. Specially the ones you love.
A year ago life brought me to Christina. Her friend thought that it would be a great idea for her to take the Loving Song class with me. Christina was not sure she could do it, and maybe not even sure she wanted to do it. We talked on the phone and then she invited me to her home. That was the beginning of a new relationship between her and a stranger that brought change into her relationship with her son, Mason.
When I first went to Christina's home I saw a woman, a new mom, with amazingly gentle eyes, a beautiful tender voice and loving energy but who was scared, insecure, tired and needed help. The moment that deeply touched me was when I offered to bring her some water while her son was sleeping in her arms. The gratitude in her eyes for the simple gesture of bringing water to her is something I will never forget.
The power of a simple act of kindness.
Later that day I wrote a note to Christina's friend: "She is happy to have you as a friend who sent me to her. She needs help."
My mission with Christina was to help her establish eye contact with her son - the base for any kind of meaningful, baby directed interaction.
It may sound easy, maybe even trivial. However, the lack of eye contact can inhibit the baby from connecting to the parent and therefore connecting to the outside world and to him/her self. Eye contact is the base for bonding and attachment.
I was honored and delighted to see the change in Christina and Mason. The programs I teach: the Musical Baby Bonding TM and the International's Association of Infant Massage's program, have both helped Christina gain confidence, understand her baby, relax and enjoy motherhood.
I knew she was struggling but I did not know how deeply.
I knew I helped her but I did not know how much I had impacted her and her family.
The sincerity and range of emotions she is expressing in this video just blew me away. The number of important subjects she touches in her testimonial is precious - postpartum depression and anxiety, isolation and loneliness, insecurity and fears, the importance of partner support, and all the "simple" challenges of motherhood and parenting.
This is why I decided to make it a longer video by any latest-fast paced standards.
My intention is to bring an important story to light and to tell all the moms out there - motherhood does not have to be a picture-perfect event. You are allowed to feel it all - the good, the bad and the ugly. You are not alone and there are people who can help if you reach out.
For this entry I have decided to share a personal note from one of the moms that took my class. As you may know I teach two distinct courses with the same goal: to support families in the very first weeks and months of their lives together.
Loving Song is a remarkably effective course - a series of four ‘mini concerts’ performed by moms and babies. The program used for this course is known as Musical Baby Bonding TM and it’s creator is Orly Zalel.
At first, I decided to become a MBB instructor because the idea of using music sounded like great fun. I was already working with families, teaching baby massage, so Musical Baby Bonding seemed to be an exciting addition to what I was doing. The more I teach the Loving Song classes, the more I discover the richness and power of the MBB program. It’s still brings a great deal of fun, but it’s becoming so much more than that!
ATTENTION ALL MOMS! Once you can break the ice of “I don’t know how to sing” or “I am a terrible singer”, you will discover a whole new world of powerful ways to connect with your baby. You will be able to see your baby learn and thrive right before your eyes. There is nothing more powerful than the “AHA” moment when you discover your baby DOES respond to what you have to offer. It usually happens just a few moments after you would have normally given up. One of the biggest realizations for many moms is how important it is to SLOW DOWN.
Give your baby time... observe... wait...
The best advice I would give to any mom - just slow down and observe.
And then slow down again....
The beautiful thing is that moms do get it. They experience it, they can feel it - the power of connecting with their child in a deeper and more meaningful way. Apart from learning new songs and rhymes, using new musical instruments and props, what they take away from the Loving Song course is the profound feeling of closeness and understanding of the baby. Every smile, every look, every coo they get from the baby is deserved and they, the moms, made it happen. There is no bigger reward for them and there is no bigger reward for me than to witness it.
I would now like to share a review written by Maria Rajanna, who recently took the Loving Song course. She works as a middle school teacher and was able to understand and appreciate the thread between positive interactions in the very beginning of life and academic performance and socio-emotional competence later on.
Remember: when we talk about brain development, just as in any construction project, only a stable, strong foundation will allow and support further building.
* * *
"I participated in Marija's Baby Bonding Music class in Benicia with the expectation of learning a few songs to sing to my 4 month old, and meet a few more moms. The class did just that, but so much more was taught; the class was an opportunity to remind me that everyday objects can be used as one way to enhance babies giving parents their attention. From using multicolored and black and white plush toys for capturing the babies' attention while singing a welcome song to instruments made out of dried fruit seeds, "baby bonding" went beyond singing.
Marija emphasized that how we utilize our voices, eyes, touch, movement, and hearing (5 contacts) and slow down our face-to-face interactions with our babies will, in return, improve their focus on one skill, one sound at a time.
Also, research has shown the benefits of babies hearing music and/or participating in songs, but equally important is silence and how it paves the way for more intentional observation on one sound instead of being overstimulated by many sounds.
For example, Marija always included meditative walking in her sessions. And the power of simple meditative walking with a baby in tow worked wonders. With relaxed shoulders and taking mindful deep breaths, and holding my son facing out so he can see the room, I could immediately feel calm. In return, his wiggling, fussy body became quieted.
Even as a teacher myself, I practice silent mindfulness in the classroom with my students: showing an object or ringing a chime to signal students in the beginning of class to pause, slowly inhale and exhale, rest hands and feet where they lay, and be still. After 5 minutes of mindfulness, the mood in the classroom changes from feeling "overwhelmed" to "calm." The power of mindful silence works whether with a baby in my arms or in a classroom of 35 middle school students.
Lastly, speaking with Marija after class, she reveals that her intention is to provide mothers of all economic levels that space to bond with their babies so content and satisfying relationships can form between mother and child, not just til the next class, but throughout the baby's life. Therefore, the class sessions are structured, but not rigid and there are many opportunities for Q&A and giving/listening to advice. As a teacher in the classroom for nearly 10 years, the most powerful role model is the parent and I have seen what strong effective parent-child relationships look like and when a child has been ignored growing up. Marija hopes to create positive change with her specific skills and knowledge of caring/bonding for mothers and babies in the Bay Area, and I highly recommend in participating in at least one class series to be part of something wonderful in the journey of motherhood."
Maria Rajanna and baby Anaadi
Since I was a little girl, through adolescence and adulthood, I learned that life can flip over in the blink of an eye and that planning doesn’t always work. Sometimes one has to become something new and different in order to survive, to continue living in circumstances that are not always our choice.
Many people plan to become parents and many times it works out just fine but what if….?
What if the pregnancy was not planned? What if it is unwanted? What if it is a result of an extremely unpleasant event?
What if becoming a mother is just not what a woman envisioned it to be? What if it is a struggle?
In one of my baby massage classes I asked the moms to write on a piece of paper the first thing that came to their mind to describe them as a mom. They did not have to share if they didn’t want to, but it was a fun way to start a conversation. Only after the class, on one of the papers left behind did I see the word - SAD. I don’t know who wrote it but it made me sad and it made me think… Motherhood is not always this joyful, fun, sparkly, smiley event. Motherhood can be a challenge and it is OK because being a mom is hard, new, tiresome, demanding and yes - it can be sad.
This also made me think of a short quote from the book Loving Hands by Frederick Leboyer:
“… no one, after serious reflection, can really say that “life begins at birth.”
What is it, then, that does begin at the moment we are born?
What is it if not life?
Fear and the child are born together.”
The Birth of a Mother is the title of an article by Alexandra Sacks, M.D. published in the New York Times in May 2017.
(please click on its title to read).
This beautiful writing inspired me to think about motherhood and it’s challenges.
I also learned a new word - Matrescence, which means: The process of becoming a mother, coined by anthropologist Dana Rafael. If you ask me, once started, this process never ends.
Dear moms, I am humbled and privileged to be part of your journey, even if it is just for a few weeks. Witnessing your joys and struggles allows me to grow and learn so much about life - and for that I am eternally grateful.
Newborns Tell Their Story. If We Listen
Shared with authorization from the author. Written by Giuditta Tornetta from joyinbirthing.com
For years we thought newborn babies would only sleep, eat and cry, for the first six months, but that is not all they can do!
We live in a fast-food, fear-based, instant gratification society. As a consequence many mothers are induced before their due date or during labor to get the baby out quickly. They are encouraged to get an epidural, terrorized by the stories of unbearable pain during labor. And once that baby is born, parents are taught to quickly shush and soothe a crying baby, because a baby’s cry needs to be fixed.
There is only one way for a baby to communicate to the world around her crying. That is what most people call it. I prefer saying that a baby is talking. Babies usually talk when they are: hungry, startled, thirsty, tired, wet, have to burp, want to be held, wonder where you are, are just lonely, or want to tell you something. You will quickly learn what your baby is trying to tell you, if you shift your belief from “My baby cries she is in distress and I have to fix it.” to “My baby is talking, I might not understand exactly what she wants but I WILL LISTEN?” Your baby has a right to self-expression.
Responding to your baby’s talking every time she does, will not spoil her; it will however build a trusting relationship between her and you. At birth you will want to hear your baby’s voice as an indication she has taken her first breath, don’t try to shush her or even saying things like”don’t cry, it’s okay.” Use empathy and listen to her very first expression. You could use something like,”Wow is that your voice? Please tell me more.” Psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development suggest that trust and mistrust are the first building blocks of personality. According to Erikson, choosing one versus the other, trust or mistrust, is the result of our first learned experiences in the womb, at birth and throughout the non-verbal life of a child.
Babies “talk” a lot so the best thing to offer is empathy and an attentive ear. Babies have only one way of communicating “ it sounds like crying,” and if every time they attempt to talk we try to shut them down they will get the wrong message.
In my work as a postpartum doula, I’ve noticed that sometimes when babies cry they just need your attention. Of course I encourage parents to always attend their crying baby. In fact, I am not a big supporter of anyone who tells you to let you baby cry to self-soothe or sleep on her own. But when I respond to a baby who is crying, instead of shushing or bouncing him on a ball to quickly quiet him, I rather approach the baby and simply empathize. I say something like, “I hear you, I am here, tell me more. Did you wake up scared? You seem very upset, tell me how you feel?” Invariably the baby hearing and feeling empathy calms down.
By empathizing we give respect to and acknowledge the baby’s feelings. Sometimes babies talk when they want to tell you the story of their birth, or they want to tell you they just had a scary dream. Maybe they just want to let you know that when they fall asleep on your breast and then wake up in the crib alone, they get scared.
Picking up a baby who cries using words such as “Don’t cry, there is nothing wrong. Shushhhhhhh,” is denying his/her feelings. Think about it, how would you feel if your loved one used these words when you were crying? Of course sometimes babies are simply hungry, have a dirty diaper, are overtired, or need to be burped, but once you have checked that their bodily needs are met, allow them to tell you their thoughts and feelings. If this talking happens in the middle of the night it is okay to give yourself a time limit; you can tell your child,”I hear you, I’ll listen to what you have to say for awhile, then we’ll go back to sleep.” After you have allowed the baby to express himself, go ahead and use the gentle shushing, swaddling or other techniques to help your baby go back to sleep.
Remember that as much as your child has a right to expression, so do you. It is OK to tell your baby: “When you talk this way I also feel frustrated because I wish I could understand you better.” But beware of boundaries. Empathy is one thing, while simply crying with them is another. When you respond to a baby’s voice first check in with yourself and settle your feelings, only then can you truly help another. Excessive crying is the number one culprit for postpartum blues and depression. By changing your belief system from my baby is crying to my baby is talking, you will begin to shut down the voices inside that tell you that you don’t know what you are doing, that you are a terrible mother, that you cannot satisfy your baby’s needs, or worse that your are starving your baby.
The development of trust and mistrust continues into the toddler and childhood years. The level of reliance your child will feel in her life is correlated with your ability to keep your word and allow her to freely express herself with you. As a mother, you represent the safe haven the child can rely on and return to when going out and exploring the world. You are the one person she was born to trust unconditionally; a trust that she will be heard and that her right to self-expression is respected.
The Power of Touch
Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship. Here's how to regain fluency in your first language.
By Rick Chillot, published on March 11, 2013 - last reviewed on October 5, 2016
You're in a crowded subway car on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on a city bus. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts. A toddler in his stroller looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to Mom for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quietly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away—then back to Mom. She takes his hand again: squeeze and release.
A twenty-something in a skirt and blazer sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blonde wisps off her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.
A couple propped against a pole shares messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair.
A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with some elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.
Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. "This is a touch-phobic society," he says. "We're not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.” But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. "I was surprised," Hertenstein admits. "I thought the accuracy would be at chance level," about 25 percent.
Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at communicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. "Everywhere we've studied this, people seem able to do it," he says.
Indeed, we appear to be wired to interpret the touch of our fellow humans. A study providing evidence of this ability was published in 2012 by a team who used fMRI scans to measure brain activation in people being touched. The subjects, all heterosexual males, were shown a video of a man or a woman who was purportedly touching them on the leg. Unsurprisingly, subjects rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex responded more sharply to a woman's touch than to a man's. But here's the twist: The videos were fake. It was always a woman touching the subjects. The results were startling, because the primary somatosensory cortex had been thought to encode only basic qualities of touch, such as smoothness or pressure. That its activity varied depending on whom subjects believed was touching them suggests that the emotional and social components of touch are all but inseparable from physical sensations. "When you're being touched by another person, your brain isn't set up to give you the objective qualities of that touch," says study coauthor Michael Spezio, a psychologist at Scripps College. "The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you."
If touch is a language, it seems we instinctively know how to use it. But apparently it's a skill we take for granted. When asked about it, the subjects in Hertenstein's studies consistently underestimated their ability to communicate via touch—even while their actions suggested that touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.
"With the face and voice, in general we can identify just one or two positive signals that are not confused with each other," says Hertenstein. For example, joy is the only positive emotion that has been reliably decoded in studies of the face. Meanwhile, his research shows that touch can communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language, "but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions," Hertenstein says.
It may also increase the speed of communication: "If you're close enough to touch, it's often the easiest way to signal something," says Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. This immediacy is particularly noteworthy when it comes to bonding. "We feel more connected to someone if they touch us," Guerrero notes.
There's no phrase book to translate the language of touch; if anything, experts have barely begun documenting its grammar and vocabulary. "We found that there are many different ways to indicate a given emotion through touch," Hertenstein notes. What's more, how a touch gets interpreted is very context dependent. "Whether we're at the doctor's office or in a nightclub plays a huge role in how the brain responds to the same type of contact," Spezio explains. Still, examining some of the notable ways that we communicate and bond through touch (and how we develop the capacity to do so) reveals the versatility of this tool and suggests ways to make better use of it. There's much to be gained from embracing our tactile sense—in particular, more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connection with others.
Learning the Language of Touch
We begin receiving tactile signals even before birth, as the vibration of our mother's heartbeat is amplified by amniotic fluid. No wonder then that touch plays a critical role in parent-child relationships from the start: "It's an essential channel of communication with caregivers for a child," says San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions.
A mother's touch enhances attachment between mother and child; it can signify security ("You're safe; I'm here") and, depending on the type of touch, it can generate positive or negative emotions. (Playing pat-a-cake makes infants happy, while a sudden squeeze from Mom often signals a warning not to interact with a new object). Mom's touch even seems to mitigate pain when infants are given a blood test. University of Miami School of Medicine's Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, has linked touch, in the form of massage, to a slew of benefits, including better sleep, reduced irritability, and increased sociability among infants—as well as improved growth of preemies.
We're never touched as much as when we're children, which is when our comfort level with physical contact, and with physical closeness in general (what scientists call proxemics), develops. "The fact that there's a lot of cultural variation in comfort with touch suggests it's predominantly learned," Andersen says.
Warm climates tend to produce cultures that are more liberal about touching than colder regions (think Greeks versus Germans, or Southern hospitality versus New England stoicism). There are a number of hypotheses as to why, including the fact that a higher ambient temperature increases the availability of skin ("It pays to touch somebody if there's skin showing or they're wearing light clothing through which they can feel the touch," Andersen says); the effect of sunlight on mood ("It increases affiliativeness and libidinousness—lack of sunlight can make us depressed, with fewer interactions"); and migratory patterns ("Our ancestors tended to migrate to the same climate zone they came from. The upper Midwest is heavily German and Scandinavian, while Spaniards and Italians went to Mexico and Brazil. That influences the brand of touch").
What goes on in your home also plays a role. Andersen notes that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types, "probably because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful." Tolerance for touch isn't set in stone, however. Spend time in a different culture, or even with touchy-feely friends, and your attitude toward touch can change.
By the time we're adults, most of us have learned that touching tends to raise the stakes, particularly when it comes to a sense of connectivity. Even fleeting contact with a stranger can have a measurable effect, both fostering and enhancing cooperation. In research done back in 1976, clerks at a university library returned library cards to students either with or without briefly touching the student's hand. Student interviews revealed that those who'd been touched evaluated the clerk and the library more favorably. The effect held even when students hadn't noticed the touch.
More recent studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they're touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request. Call it the human touch, a brief reminder that we are, at our core, social animals. "Lots of times in these studies people don't even remember being touched. They just feel there's a connection, they feel that they like that person more," Guerrero says.
Just how strong is touch's bonding benefit? To find out, a team led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Michael Kraus tracked physical contact between teammates during NBA games (consider all those chest bumps, high fives, and backslaps). The study revealed that the more on-court touching there was early in the season, the more successful teams and individuals were by season's end. The effect of touch was independent of salary or performance, eliminating the possibility that players touch more if they're more skilled or better compensated.
"We were very surprised. Touch predicted performance across all the NBA teams," says Kraus. "Basketball players sometimes don't have time to say an encouraging word to a teammate; instead, they developed this incredible repertoire of touch to communicate quickly and accurately," he explains, adding that touch can likely improve performance across any cooperative context. As with our primate relatives, who strengthen social bonds by grooming each other, in humans, "touch strengthens relationships and is a marker of closeness," he says. "It increases cooperation but is also an indicator of how strong bonds are between people."
If a post-rebound slap on the back or the brush of a hand while delivering a bill can help us all get along a bit better, it may be because "when you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin, you lower stress hormones," says the Touch Research Institute's Field. At the same time, warm touch stimulates release of the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin, which enhances a sense of trust and attachment.
The release also helps explain our propensity for self-caressing, which we do hundreds of times each day as a calming mechanism. "We do a lot of self-touching: flipping our hair, hugging ourselves," Field notes. Other common behaviors include massaging our foreheads, rubbing our hands, or stroking our necks. Evidence supports the idea that it's effective: Self-massage has been shown to slow the heart rate and lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol.
A Touch of Love
Every evening at bedtime, DePauw's Hertenstein gives his young son a back rub. "It's a bonding opportunity for the two of us. Oxytocin levels go up, heart rates go down, all these wonderful things that you can't see." Moments like these also reveal the reciprocal nature of touch, he says: "You can't touch without being touched. A lot of those same beneficial physiological consequences happen to me, the person doing the touching."
In fact, when we're the ones initiating contact, we may reap all the same benefits as those we're touching. For example, Field's research has revealed that a person giving a massage experiences as great a reduction in stress hormones as the person on the receiving end. "Studies have shown that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as a person being hugged," she adds.
Moreover, touching another person isn't just a one-way street when it comes to signaling; aside from sending them a message, it reveals a great of deal information about their state of mind, Hertenstein notes. Are they open to touch or do they pull away? Are they relaxed or tense? Are they warm—or perhaps cold and clammy? "Sometimes I'll touch my wife and can tell instantly—even if my eyes are closed—that she's stressed," he says. "You can sense that through muscle tightness and contraction, and this kind of information can guide our behavior with that person—it influences what we think, how we perceive what they say."
Perhaps because touch affects both the person being touched and the one doing the touching, it is one of the most fundamental ways of fostering and communicating intimacy in a romantic relationship. One paper proposed a sequence of 12 behaviors of increasing intimacy that couples generally follow:
After the first three (eye-to-body contact, eye-to-eye contact, and speaking), the remaining nine involve touching (starting with holding hands, then kissing, and eventually sexual intimacy). "Touch functions a bit differently depending on the stage of the relationship," says Guerrero. "In the beginning, it's kind of exploratory. Will the other person reciprocate if I touch?" As the relationship progresses, touching begins to spike. "You see lots of public touch," she notes, "people holding hands the whole time they're together or with their arms around each other's shoulders. It signals they're intensifying the relationship."
But it would be a mistake to think that the amount of touching couples do continues to follow an escalating trajectory. Research involving observation of couples in public and analysis of their self-reports shows that the amount of touching rises at the beginning of a relationship, peaks somewhere early in a marriage, and then tapers off. Over time romantic partners adjust the amount of touching they do, up- or downshifting their behavior to move closer to their significant other's habits. Inability to converge on a common comfort zone tends to derail a relationship early on, while among couples in long-term marriages, touching reaches an almost one-to-one ratio.
While couples who are satisfied with each other do tend to touch more, the true indicator of a healthy long-term bond is not how often your partner touches you but how often he or she touches you in response to your touch. "The stronger the reciprocity, the more likely someone is to report emotional intimacy and satisfaction with the relationship," Guerrero says. As with many things in relationships, satisfaction is as much about what we do for our partner as about what we're getting.
The Laws of Social Contact
The most important things we reveal through touch: "probably our degree of dominance and our degree of intimacy," Andersen says. Take, for example, the handshake, one of the few situations in which it's OK to make prolonged contact with a stranger. As such, it's an important opportunity for sending a message about yourself. "A limp handshake signifies uncertainty, low enthusiasm, introversion," Andersen says, while a viselike grip can be taken as a sign that you're trying to dominate. "You want to have a firm but not bone-crushing handshake," he advises, since it's better to be perceived as overly warm than as a cold fish. "We like people to have a kind of medium-high level of warmth," Andersen says. "A person who touches a lot says, 'I'm a friendly, intimate person.' More touch-oriented doctors, teachers, and managers get higher ratings."
Still, outside of close relationships, the consequences of sending the wrong message also increase. "Touchy people are taking some risk that they might be perceived as being over-the-top or harassing," says Andersen. "Physical contact can be creepy; it can be threatening." Context matters, which is why we have rules about whom we can touch, where, and when. "Generally, from the shoulder down to the hand are the only acceptable areas for touch," at least between casual acquaintances, according to Andersen. "The back is very low in nerve endings, so that's OK too."
Of course, there are other contextual considerations as well. Different cultures and individuals have different tolerance levels for touch. Same-sex and opposite-sex touches have different implications. Then there's the quality of the touch, the duration, the intensity, the circumstances. "It's a complex matrix," Andersen says. A quick touch and release—like a tap on a cubicle mate's shoulder to get her attention—no problem. But a stroke on the shoulder could be easily misinterpreted. ("Most cases of sexual harassment involve stroking touches," notes Andersen.)
A touch will naturally seem more intimate if it is accompanied by other signals, such as a prolonged gaze, or if it is held an instant too long. Meanwhile, a squeeze on the arm could be a sign of sympathy or support, but if it doesn't end quickly and is accompanied by intense eye contact, it can come across as a squeeze of aggression. Environment changes things too: On the playing field, a man might feel comfortable giving his teammate a pat on the butt for a job well done, but that congratulatory gesture wouldn't do too well in the office.
Really, the only rule that ensures communicating by touch won't get you into trouble is this: Don't do it. Which is likely what it says in the employee handbook for your workplace. Still, leaving your humanity behind every time you leave home isn't very appealing. Andersen's slightly less stringent guidelines for touch: Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it's always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate.
If there's a most appropriate time to communicate via touch, it's probably when someone needs consoling. "Research shows that touch is the best way to comfort," says Guerrero. "If you ask people how they'd comfort someone in a given situation, they tend to list pats, hugs, and different kinds of touch behaviors more than anything else. Even opposite-sex friends, for example, who usually don't touch a lot so they won't send the wrong signals, won't worry about being misinterpreted," she says.
Maybe that's because there are times—during intense grief or fear, but also in ecstatic moments of joy or love—when only the language of touch can fully express what we feel.