Amazing new research is coming out showing the fundamental importance of your sense of touch. It is the first sense available to you as a baby. A variety of positive and negative emotions can be understood through brief one second touches to the forearm, even when you cannot see the person touching you.
It may be that touch sends more information than gestures, body language or facial expressions. Touch varies widely in its expression – a hug, a gentle touch on the shoulder, a scratch on the face, a hip check, a high five, a punch to the bicep, a desperate clutch to the forearm. All of these are expressions of touch filled with social and emotional meaning for the person whom receives the touch.
While I follow the latest research on emotion and psychology, I was surprised and delighted to see a study on touch appear in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated (The Metaphysical Significance, Staggering Ubiquity and Sheer Joy of High Fives by Chris Ballard). The study which looked at the effects of touch on performance in the NBA is entitled Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA and comes out of the greatest university in the world – U.C. Berkeley (okay, I’m biased!). Lead researchers of the project are Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner.
The researchers observed nearly 300 NBA players (across all 30 teams) over a period of 2 months. They catalogued and recorded every touch between players during games. The touches were classified in one of 12 areas including categories such as high fives, head slaps, and jumping shoulder bumps. The results were nothing short of awe-inspiring. The more touches between teammates, the more wins the team had.
The teams that touch the most? The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Both of these teams surpassed the 60 win mark last season. And both teams averaged more than 100 seconds of touching during games. The results held even when the lofty expectations are taken into account for these elite teams.
The teams that touch the least? The Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Bobcats. They averaged a measly 16.5 seconds and earned only 52 wins last season combined.
How about individual players? Does the power of touch hold at an individual level?
The ‘touchiest’ players (i.e., most high fives, chest bumps, head slaps) are also among the NBA’s elite players including Kevin Garnett of the Celtics, Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. Garnett averages 15.7 seconds of touching per game which is over two times as much as the entire Sacramento Kings entire team.
Apparently, it’s the leaders of the team that initiate most of the touching in the form of hugs, low fives, fist bumps and more.
Why is there such a powerful effect for the sense of touch?
We know that massages from loved ones not only reduce pain, they also reduce depressive symptoms. Students who are given a compassionate pat on the shoulder are 200% more likely to volunteer for an in class assignment. When your doctor offers a sympathetic touch, it makes you feel as if he has spent twice as much time with you during the visit.
How can one sense be related to such varied and significant events as wins in the NBA, reduction in depression, perception of time, reduction in pain, and promotion of altruistic behavior?
The primary theory is that touch activates the autonomic nervous system which has two branches – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). One helpful metaphor to understand these two is the idea of a car in which the accelerator is like the sympathetic nervous system and the brakes are akin to the parasympathetic nervous system. Positive touches (e.g., kind, compassionate, tender, gentle, sympathetic, etc.) seem to activate the PNS, or the body’s brakes, which helps the body to relax, to experience positive emotions. Negative touches (e.g., a punch, a pinch, scratch or a bite) seems to activate the SNS, or the body’s gas pedal, which prepares the body for the fight or flight response.
In many of us, the SNS is chronically active as if the gas pedal is being pushed continuously. Due to the fast pace of society, the financial demands, the pressure of balancing work, home and personal health, many get into a cycle of chronic low level stress. In this case, the PNS, the relaxation response, is rarely, if ever, activated.
In sports psychology, it is known that the zone, where optimal human functioning occurs, requires a balance between stress and relaxation. In other words, there needs to be a balance between the functioning of the SNS and the PNS. Touch seems to be one way to activate the PNS thereby balancing the pressure of performing in the moment with the relaxation response, allowing athletes to perform at their peak.
Hope you enjoyed this one! I sure enjoyed writing it!
All the best,
John Schinnerer Ph.D.
Guide To Self, Inc.
Positive Psychology Coach