Massage away 'touch taboo'

Touch
October 4, 2002

The importance of touch is often neglected, not intentionally or even consciously, but because there is a lack of awareness of how integral a role physical contact actually plays in leading a healthy life. This is Tiffany Field's main point in Touch. She provides a convincing argument, through the discussion of experimental and observational evidence, that touch is necessary for healthy development and mental wellbeing.

Field begins by taking an anthropological perspective on touch, looking at cultural differences in the type and amount of touch that is considered appropriate in different circumstances. Using examples from real-life situations, she shows what can happen when there is deprivation of touch, such as the serious under-development of Romanian orphans, or the depression in elderly people who live in nursing homes and can go for weeks without any physical contact.

Having explained these problems, Field then argues that touch deprivation is not limited to such extreme situations. She explains its prevalence in affluent societies, most notably the "touch-taboo" culture of America, in which many teachers avoid physical contact with children for fear of being prosecuted for child abuse. Such an approach is understandable but detrimental to the pupils' development.

Field also argues that other factors have led to a decrease in physical contact in all aspects of life. In medical treatments, for example, touch formerly played an integral role. But the advent of new drugs means that touch is back on the shelf.

After considering the sorts of problems that can arise from a lack of touch, Field looks at whether the effects might be reversible. In her research she has found that touch therapy (particularly massage) can produce effective therapeutic and curative effects on a wide variety of different people. These can range from premature babies and autistic children to anorexic teenagers and HIV-positive adults. The beneficial effects of touch therapy are wide ranging, and include decreases in levels of stress, discomfort and anxiety. More specific changes have also been noted following massage therapy, such as decreased blood-glucose levels in children with juvenile diabetes and improved pulmonary function in asthmatics.

Having discussed her experimental findings, Field provides a clear outline of various types of touch therapy, as well as the theories purporting to explain in physiological terms how and why these methods work. While there is not yet a consensus on which of these theories (if any) is correct, that does not undermine Field's clear recommendation that touch therapy should be seriously considered as an alternative treatment for a range of problems.

Touch is very readable and is to be recommended to parents and medical professionals alike. Field's findings are impressive and exciting, and they should be an influential addition to the body of evidence that suggests that while the value and effectiveness of conventional medical practices is becoming ever more obvious, so too are its limitations. A society that continues to ignore the therapeutic value of so-called alternative treatments, such as those involving touch, risks causing serious harm to its members.

Bryony Whiting is a PhD student at the Institute of Child Health, University College London.

Touch

Author - Tiffany Field
ISBN - 0 262 06216 X
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £15.50
Pages - 181

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