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Need for Touch

There is a biological need for touch, an actual hunger for touch that can be met only in contact with another human being. This was first discovered during the nineteenth century, when children who had been abandoned at birth and transferred to foundling homes died by the thousands. They literally wasted away, despite the fact that they were fed, kept clean, and protected from danger. The condition, known as marasmus (from the Greek, meaning "wasting away"), claimed the lives of nearly 100 percent of the infants under the age of one in U.S. foundling hospitals as late as 1920. What these children lacked was physical contact. Infants raised in their own homes are normally cradled and fed at their mothers' breasts, but these foundlings weren't.

When this connection between life and touch was realized, doctors and nurses in many institutions cooperated in a plan to supply "mothering" for these children. It consisted of holding, stroking, speaking to the infant, and allowing significant periods of cuddling the child, especially at mealtimes. The results were dramatic and immediate. Infant mortality rates dropped within one year of adopting these touching practices,

Despite the lessons we have learned about the necessity for touch, many child-rearing practices that discourage it endure today. Evidence to the contrary, some child rearing experts continue to recommend outdated practices such as feeding children only on schedule, discourage breastfeeding, and purport that a child’s independence is more likely to be learned by exiling the little person to sleep alone in crib in a separate room. In many cultures, it is common practice for parents and children to share the same bed, yet in our society this is often considered unnatural.

The lack of sufficient touch has far-reaching effects on our development and shows itself in problematic ways when we reach maturity. Some destructive means of compensating for the unmet need for touch may include:

  • Overeating - trying to fill an inner void left by unmet oral needs, and deadening the pain of emotional isolation, often through eating fatty foods fat that act to (not sure, but there may be a better word than dampens) dampens the emotions,
  • Self-destructive habits, such as smoking, nail-biting, pulling out hair, rubbing the skin excessively, and even self-mutilation
  • Compulsive sex, physical violence and aggressiveness, rape, and other forms of sexual abuse.

The biggest problem that touch deprivation creates, however, is a sense of alienation from ourselves and isolation from others. We see this manifested in these behaviors:

  • Boredom with, and lack of energy for, life in general, the experience of being out of touch with or disconnected from the world
  • Sexual dysfunction - an unresponsiveness to the special electricity of the touch of another human body; overanxiousness, which can encourage both premature ejaculation and overall bodily tension; and fear of one's own body
  • Unsatisfying relationships, unwillingness to attend to the needs of the other, self-preoccupation, excessive shyness, the fear of reaching out, and the fear of sustained intimacy.

The need for psychological touch - attention, acknowledgment, love, praise - is as great as that for physical touch. As a primary input in the Wellness Energy System, it will be addressed further in Wellness and Feeling.

Researchers have found that the affectional touch climate in the subject's family of origin is the major psychosocial variable related to a person's current sexual attitude and behavior. Subjects who originated from physically affectionate families were more likely to enjoy pleasurable and more frequent experiences in the sexual-affectional aspects of their adult relationships. Adults who experienced rejection and touch deprivation in their childhood tend to treat their adult partners and their offspring in a similar manner. —Mary Main

* Montagu, A., Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (Perennial, 1986), 82-84.

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