Human connections

So close you could touch? That's a good thing, say researchers, new business owner

Aimee Wilshire recently opened Touched, a business in Rifle in which she offers clients platonic touch. “We’re always on our phones,” Wilshire says. “We don’t even talk to each other, let alone touch each other, and not in a sexual way, but just platonic human touch. We’re severely deprived of a basic human need.”.



A cropped shot of a woman holding a loved one’s hand in support



It may or may not have meant something, but it was worth noting: As Dr. Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, sat in the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Thursday afternoon, she noted that “probably nine out of 10 people were on cellphones or computers.”

Not that strangers in an airport are necessarily going to share their life stories with each other, and certainly they aren’t going to offer each other hugs and cuddles — not without security being summoned, at least — but maybe it meant something.

Several months earlier, and a thousand or so miles to the west, Aimee Wilshire had a similar thought: “We’re always on our phones,” she said. “We don’t even talk to each other, let alone touch each other, and not in a sexual way, but just platonic human touch. We’re severely deprived of a basic human need.”

So, she took a leap, feeling instinctively that swiping left or right, double-tapping a like or texting a smiley face simply wasn’t enough. On Monday, in an inconspicuous office building near Interstate 70 in Rifle, she opened Touched (touchedcolorado.com), a business in which she offers clients platonic touch.

With a by-the-minute fee scale, and after clients sign a waiver agreeing that all touch is fully clothed and absolutely non-sexual, Touched will offer hugs or cuddles, hold a client’s hand or let them put their head on her lap, rub their back, “whatever that person needs, whatever is going to give them comfort,” she explained.

Whoa whoa whoa there. Let’s just slow things down a minute. This is the West. A land of proud and hardy people, a suck-it-up, rub-some-dirt-on-it kind of place.

A convivial handshake? Sure.

A hearty pat on the shoulder? Eh, let’s not get carried away.

A hug or cuddle from a stranger? Step back, friend.

Is this necessary? Can this work here? Is it creepy? Are people that touch deprived?

“I think they are,” Wilshire said. “I mean, just look at people together in a group. Most of them are looking down at their phones.”

Technology has created a new wrinkle in the area of touch research. Field, considered a pioneer in the discipline, said she isn’t aware of any research on personal technology use and its affect on human touch, but studies have been done on how technology can affect relationships.

In a study published in November of 2014 in The Neuropsychotherapist eMagazine, University of Queensland researchers Christina Leggett and Pieter Rossouw reported that in a study of 21 couples, “using a laptop while in the presence of a partner, but without engaging/interacting with them, was associated with a couple’s negative perception of the relationship.”

They also noted that “mobile phone users frequently disengage from meetings, face-to-face conversations, parties, and family in order to engage with their devices. On the other hand, technology has been shown to positively impact relationships, as the increased accessibility means an increase in connection, especially when couples are apart. What happens, then, when a couple are face-to-face and using technology separately?”

While the study doesn’t directly address touch, it adds an interesting twist to decades of research on touch. Researchers have looked at how touch benefits not just humans, but other species as well, aiding physical, emotional and neurological development and well-being.

Researchers at McGill University’s Developmental Neuroendocrinology Laboratory reported in 2003 that rats that were groomed and licked often by their mothers when they were young grew up to be more calm and resilient under stress.

Moving on to humans, a landmark 1997 study by Mary Carlson and Felton Earls of Harvard University, published as “Psychological and Neuroendocrinological Sequelae of Early Social Deprivation in Institutionalized Children in Romania,” found that children raised in institutional settings such as orphanages showed elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which they linked to lower performance on physical and cognitive tests than children who had been raised at home.

The children raised in institutions, they found, were not touched very often and thus lagged in physical and emotional development.

While science has proven again and again that babies and children need touch, what about adults?

They need it, too, wrote Dacher Keltner, co-director of the Greater Good Science Center (greatergood.berkeley.edu) at the University of California at Berkeley.

“We also know that touch builds up cooperative relationships — it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances,” Keltner wrote. “There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone’.”

University of Oxford researcher Edmund Rolls reported in 2003 that the orbitofrontal cortex in a human brain is activated by touch, which can lead to feelings of compassion and reward.

The problem, Keltner acknowledged, is that the United States isn’t a very touchy place by nature, a situation that has been exacerbated by increased litigiousness. As a society, America has necessarily become hyper-sensitive to any wrong touch, or even the perception of wrongness.

People are, for lack of a better term, on high creepiness alert.

Add to that anecdotal evidence suggesting decreased face-to-face interaction and touch because of increased personal technology use, “and people just aren’t being touched very much,” Wilshire said.

It’s not about sex, she elaborated, but about a comforting pat, a friendly squeeze, a hug, a cuddle — the warmth of skin and the reassurance, even momentary, of connection in an otherwise isolating modern world.

People might be embarrassed to admit to wanting it, she said, or they might cringe at the thought of letting someone inside their 18-inch barrier of intimate space, “but we all need it. Every human being needs to be touched.”

For information about Touched, call 970-665-9581.


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