Touch in the time of social distancing
TIFFANY FIELD, Ph.D. is the Founder and Director of the Touch Research Center, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, Florida. She is well-known for her research on the benefits of touch and massage on babies’ physical and mental development, and the effect on their cognitive abilities in later life. In August 2020, she was interviewed by UDAY KUMAR about her research, and also about the effects of both digital technology and COVID on touch deprivation.
Q: Hello, Dr. Field, it’s such an honor to speak with you. How is everything at home, at work?
TF: Well, I’m up in Massachusetts. Normally I’m in Miami, but I left Miami to be with my daughter because of the hurricane that was going to hit Miami, and then it just followed us up here.
Q: I live in Princeton, New Jersey, and it hit us too, but we were still spared because we lost power for only five to six hours, so it wasn’t too bad. But just a mile away, in the community next to us, they haven’t had power for two days.
TF: That’s because of the tornados – you were probably not in the path. I was in a hotel room and outside my window there were some huge evergreen trees. I remember from my childhood when we planted a Christmas tree in the ground, and they became huge evergreens. When I was in Connecticut, these evergreens would sway and swing around. So now I’m a little worried that this evergreen will crash through my window. I was texting my sister in Hawaii, who experienced a hurricane last week, and she said, “Don’t you know that evergreens developed an evolutionary strategy to protect everything around them. They’re very, very deep rooted, they go several feet into the ground. They don’t fall over, but they sway and circulate the wind so that it doesn’t become too powerful for the other trees.” I found that really interesting.
Q: Isn’t that amazing! That is empathy at its best.
TF: Yes! I know trees talk to each other, but I didn’t know evergreens were the protectors.
Q: It’s interesting that you are bringing up trees. I was speaking with my teacher Daaji some time back about living in tune with nature, and he said that trees show how the whole idea of being in tune with nature is to take the least and give the most.They take a little water and give the best fruit. So, people forget that part and worry about everything else.
TF: Yes. My daughter studied spirituality at the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and she’s always been an environmentalist. She’s always telling me things like trees talk to each other.
Q: Have you ever been to India?
TF: Yes, many times. I love India. Are you from India?
Q: Yes, I’m from the South of India in Hyderabad. It’s about an hour’s flight north of Bangalore. My wife is from the North, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
TF: So, the southerners and northerners get along fine, huh?
Q: You know too much!
TF: They complement each other – that’s really cool. I never thought about that!
Q: Next time you visit India, I would love you to visit our meditation center near Hyderabad. We’re building what will be a model for a sustainable city, and the first thing we did was plant close to half a million trees surrounding what is considered to be the world’s largest meditation hall. We’re trying to help people understand the concept that we can coexist and thrive with the wisdom of the past connected with the technology of today – there’s a bridge to be made.
TF: Most of the people I know are deep into meditation and go to Fairfield to the Transcendental Meditation Center there and they live there half the year. They go to the assembly hall twice a day for 45 minutes and my friend goes there often.
Q: When I go to India and visit the meditation center, we do something similar. Once, during one of these trips, Daaji spoke about the idea of the Wisdom Bridge. He says that there is an opportunity to connect the wisdom of the past with modern scientific methods – preserve some of the knowledge and make it more relevant to the rational mind. He was talking about the wisdom of the shamans and the wisdom of the East, how children are taken care of, and through my research and I came across a New York Times article by Daniel Goleman in which your work is mentioned. And I said, “I have to talk to Dr. Field.”
TF: That was a long time ago! Goleman talks about emotional intelligence.
Q: So, how did you get into this?
TF: It was very strange. I was working in a neonatal intensive care unit for premature babies and we were trying to help them grow so they could get out of the nursery sooner and not be separated from their parents for so long. It also wouldn’t cost so much money to be there. Usually they are tube fed, as they have a lot of problems with the swallow reflex because they’re immature. So we said, “Let’s give them nipples to suck on, because as fetuses they suck.” You can tell because you see abrasions on their hands from sucking in utero. We have pictures of them doing that, as well.
So, we gave them nipples to suck on and they gained a lot of weight. And we said, “Well, it’s stimulating the inside of the mouth, and if that helps them gain weight then what if we stimulate them all over their bodies?” So we started massaging them and that was pretty effective. My daughter was born, meanwhile, and we used her as a guinea pig to try out the massages.
They massage babies in India, actually, and that’s where massage originated. When I visited India, they had just banned infant massage. It was terrible, because at that time in India children were getting two massages a day, and parents would really scrub them, like scrubbing them on washboards. Thankfully, they have since reinstated it.
When they did studies on rats and provided a moderate amount of pressure on the skin of rat pups, they found that the hippocampal region (the region for memory) was more developed. When these rats became adults, they were able to perform mazes just as if they were infant rats. They never became senile, and they interpreted this to say there are statistics showing that people who were born and raised in India are able to recite numbers. If you put a whole page of numbers in front of an Indian child, and then take it away, they’d be able to read those numbers back to you. They say that’s the reason why there are a disproportionate number of Indians who are computer geniuses, because they have more developed hippocampal cells.
That means that in an fMRI of the hippocampal region, the dendrites that carry the information from the axon are more elaborate – they have more arborization as a result of this early infant massage. That means they have more branches that can collect messages. That’s why you can put a page of numbers in front of an Indian child and they can read it back to you.
Do you have kids?
Q: Yes, I have a nine-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl.
TF: And did you massage them?
Q: Yes, and my wife even now gives them an oil massage every couple of weeks, and gets them to soak in the sun. But the washboard thing you were talking about – I saw my grandmother do that to a whole load of kids, like an assembly. It was quite an elaborate thing; they would do the massage, then mix some flour with turmeric and other herbs, and rub that as a paste and then wash them down. And there were other herbs, which they would smoke, and hold near the baby, and after that the baby would sleep for two to three hours.
So, when was that particular trip to India?
TF: Mostly I was in India in the 90s, but that first trip was somewhere in the 80s.
Q: I also read that you worked with Dr. Schanberg and his team. How did that come about?
TF: Dr. Schanberg and I were on the study section of the National Institute of Health in Washington. We got talking, and I was massaging babies and he was stimulating rat pups and looking at the genetic changes that occurred.
He and his team found that normally the mother rat tongue licks the pups, but when you give them extra stroking by dipping a paint brush in water and stroking them with a moderate amount of pressure, they would gain more weight. They were healthier and they’d live longer. The research found that there was a gene that was switched on by this touch that stimulated growth. So, we collaborated and won an award called the Golden Goose Award. A group from the American Association of the Advancement of Science established the Golden Goose Award in 2012, for researchers who study unusual things, and who find out important things like what helps babies grow.
Q: Overall, in our country now, it seems the importance given to primary science is going down. In the US, there used to be a lot more money given to fundamental research and science; my friends who are in research say they have to compete a lot more for grants.
TF: Yes, the NIH funding level went from 19% to 4%. I was funded for some fifty years and now I have no funds.
Q: It’s awful because it’s going to set us back so much. You can’t even measure how much has been lost because of this. It’s like wisdom – when wisdom goes away you realize much later what you have lost. That concerns me a lot, but in the current situation I’m sure you’re getting a lot of questions on “touch in the times of no touching.”
TF: I’ve been averaging three interviews a day since COVID started in March 2020, and the first question is always “Are people being touch deprived?”
The second question is “Are older people being touch deprived?”
The third question is, “What are we going to do about that?”
And the fourth question is, “Are social forms of touching, like hugging and shaking hands, going to come back, or will something else happen?”
Yoga has the same effect as massage does.
You’re moving your body parts against the floor,
and against each other,
and stimulating pressure receptors.
We had been doing a study on gate behavior at airports for the past year and a half, and were shocked to see that there was no touching going on; only 4% of the time there was touching. 53% of the time people were on their smart phones, scrolling and texting; 13% were on their phones talking; 7% were on their computers; and 13% were having face-to-face interactions with other people. So I thought that when COVID came along, because people were already not touching each other, maybe it would not be such a big thing.
But when we did a survey, we found that 60% reported that they were touch deprived. It wasn’t just people who were living alone, because living alone wasn’t even related to touch deprivation. So, what was really happening, whether people were living alone or with someone, was that they were feeling touch deprived; and the people who were feeling it most were young people living alone. It could be that older people living alone are used to being alone and don’t feel the deprivation. But I didn’t think people would be reporting deprivation – they already hadn’t been touching. It’s as if when we can’t touch then we really miss it.
Q: Now that you’re aware that you can’t touch, you feel the loss.
TF: Yes. In the meantime, at the beginning of COVID, I was observing people elbow bumping instead of hugging or shaking hands. I felt a lot of joy being expressed during elbow bumping; I saw people not only making face to face contact, but also eye contact, which you don’t do when you’re hugging because your arms are wrapped around each other. And when you’re shaking hands you’re looking at the hands, and there’s always a hesitation, especially now with the #MeToo movement. So you have to read all these nonverbal cues, whereas elbow bumping was spontaneous, “I don’t know whether you want to do this but I’m going to give it to you anyway!” And people would look, and smile, and a lot of people were laughing!
Q: Yes, I did that a couple of times in March, when I went to meet a client in Atlanta, and there were some Indian folk with me who tried to slide in the “Namaste” but it didn’t work out that well. Elbow bumps were easy; it just happened.
But tell me something: You mentioned our attention to devices, and so much of our energy going into them. Have you done any research into that leading to any effects or deprivation?
TF: Yes. I’ve written a couple of papers on COVID-19, and I’ve written a paper on spirituality and meditation. About 72% of people say they were feeling spiritual, and 48% were meditating.
Q: So, how will we recover? What kind of social touch will be acceptable again?
TF: I really don’t think hugging is going to come back, except with people who you’re really close to. I don’t think someone will want to hug a total stranger, not just because of COVID, but also because now there’s a lot of ambiguity about who wants to be hugged and who you should hug. It takes time to figure out when you’re approaching someone whether you want to hug or handshake. So, I think there’ll be more things like elbow bumping and virtual signs and actions of giving a hug or Namaste. I think Namaste is a really good one!
Q: I agree. They’re also extending the definition of physical touch, right? Coming from a meditator’s perspective, we use this phrase, “His presence touched my heart,” or “Her words touched my heart.” So are there dimensions of touch that science can explain?
TF: Well, the science of touch and the immune system is very strong – rat literature, monkey literature, human literature basically show us that any kind of hug or moving the skin is stimulating the pressure receptors under the skin. This flows to the nervous system and increases vagal activity, which in turn reduces stress hormones, and increases natural killer cells, which kill the viral, cancer and bacterial cells. It is ironic that we’re right in the middle of a viral epidemic and we can’t move the skin – I mean we can with our significant other and our families, but not with other people.
Some people are really deprived of that, and they have to do things like exercise. We’ve compared Yoga with massage, and Yoga has the same effect as massage does. You’re moving your body parts against the floor, and against each other, and stimulating pressure receptors. For people who are living alone, be sure and walk around your floor, because that is stimulating the pressure receptors in your feet. Do whatever stretches you can do, brush yourself in the shower, wash your hands a lot, because again you’re stimulating the pressure receptors. All of that is pretty clear.
The emotional aspect, the bonding effect, is not so clear except there’s mother-infant and father-infant research which suggests that oxytocin increases if you’re giving or getting more physical affection.
The science of touch and the immune system is very strong
– rat literature, monkey literature, human literature
basically show us that any kind of hug or moving the skin
is stimulating the pressure receptors under the skin.
Q: Yes, I read that in Dr. James Doty’s research on infants and nursing mothers.
TF: It started out with the research by Susan Carter on prairie voles. She did the first research on oxytocin, and found that when the mother prairie vole gave more affection to the baby it increased the oxytocin levels. Her husband, Stephen Porges, is considered the father of vagal activity, and when vagal activity increases, oxytocin increases. The two of them obviously spent a lot of time collaborating on their research, keeping it in the family. They’re a great team.
We know about oxytocin, but we don’t know how much the brain changes, how parts of the brain are turned on by emotions and feelings. Recently, there have been studies by Hertenstein showing that every way you touch someone communicates an emotion. There’s a certain kind of touch that goes with empathy, or sympathy, or anger, but we don’t use it so much because we’re mostly using verbal and facial expressions.
Q: Talking about keeping in the family, your latest paper is on meditation and spirituality. Your daughter is studying it, so you’re also doing the same thing.
TF: Yes, she’s become a Buddhist. Where she studied in New York, at Columbia, they teach all the religions, and she got into Buddhism. She has written some great papers about it, and you’d appreciate them because you’re into meditation.
Q: One of the other projects I’m working on is on Mindfulness, Buddhism and Heartfulness, and how these movements will come together to bring humanity together where religion hasn’t.
TF: I’ve been looking at writing about spirituality and meditation, and when I search the key term “spirituality,” what comes up are papers that are trying to distinguish between spirituality and religion. That seems to be the biggest debate in the spiritual literature. I think, “Don’t go there!” because the 72% I’m talking about are not religious, they’re spiritual.
Q: There was a study quoted in Newsweek some time ago that said that more and more Americans are identifying themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Our Heartfulness Guide, Daaji, defines it like this: Essentially, think of religion as a set of statements that you experience in spirituality. So, if religion says God is Love, spirituality is the experience of that. Religion is a theoretical science and spirituality is the practical science, where you can actually see it for yourself, in yourself. So, God exists everywhere, while we can experience it. It’s more a complementary approach rather than debating about it.
TF: Oh, very interesting! Yes, exactly. Some people have described religion as being objective and spirituality as subjective. You’re feeling the spirituality, while in religion you go to church and learn the dogma and scripts and so forth.
Q: Any words of advice for people on how to take care of their children?
TF: Well, like I say to all the people who call me: Make sure there’s a lot of touching going on. In our study, only 21% of people said they were touching their children regularly, and only 33% said they were touching their partner regularly. I thought this was really shocking because when you’re living in such close proximity to someone, and you’re spending so much time with them, you have to be spending more time touching. I was very surprised by those numbers.
Q: I personally have made a conscious effort to hold hands with my kids and take them for more walks, because they’re not playing with other kids. Otherwise, the home has become digital, right? So, there’s a lot of opportunity to hide yourself behind devices, behind a screen, and time has a way of passing. There may be something there – I really like the idea of more touch, more pillow fights!
TF: I think it’s really hard to have kids at home so much of the time. It’s hard on the kids, it’s hard on the parents. I would have loved to have surveyed children to see what is in their minds about all this, but of course you can’t do that without the parents’ permission. I think kids are really missing out. And kids going back to school are not keeping social distance, they’re hugging each other, they’re all close together. There’s no way to have social distancing in schools, no way.
Q: I saw a meme somewhere showing adults who can’t figure out social distancing but who expect their second graders to do it. We still have a lot to learn!
Dr. Field, thank you so much for taking this time today.
Interviewed by UDAY KUMAR
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021