Dacher Keltner Discusses the Importance of Physical Contact

Question: How important is human touch to the health of a culture?

Keltner:    The science of touch is just getting off the ground and in part because western European cultures tend to be low-touched cultures.  We don’t touch as much as people in other cultures and, you know, it, first of all, taking a Darwinian evolutionary perspective on it, we, as we lost our hair for thermoregulation purposes, our skin became amazingly rich with all kinds of neurons and networks of receptors to process information of different kinds of touch.  And then we evolved this amazing hand which is different than other primate hands and it’s very dexterous and does a lot of great things, and what the science is showing and, it is stunning, is that when I receive a very friendly form of touch, you know, a stroke to the arm, a pat on the back, it releases oxytocin, a neuropeptide that promotes trust.  It shuts down stress-related parts of the brain like the amygdala, and the locus coeruleus, it activates a branch of the nervous system we study called the vagus nerve, which is involved in connection and by the way, the vagus nerve controls your immune system in part as well, new science suggest.  There are a lot of studies now, dozens showing that warm friendly touch increases weight in premature babies, reduces signs of depression in Alzheimer’s patients.  It’s preventative medicine. 

The Berkeley professor speaks to the essential need for human-to-human contact.

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