Bridging the Great Divide: Touching Our Most Basic Humanity

“The impersonality of lie in the Western world has become such that we have produced a race of untouchables. We have become strangers to each other, not only avoiding, but even owarding off all forms of 'unnecessary' physical contact, faceless figures in a crowded landscape, lonely and afraid of intimacy”

Ashley Montagu, from Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin

The presidential elections of November 2004 poignantly illustrated “the great divide” that has grown between people in our country. I read countless statistics in both the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe analyzing voter composition. I saw charts that separated those who favored a candidate with high intelligence from those who favored a candidate who advocated a sense of morality. I saw other charts differentiating those who favored a candidate who would protect us against terrorism from those who favored a candidate who cared about the environment. After reading chart after chart, it would be easy to believe that all these issues are indeed separate and unrelated, just as are the factions of people who either supported or disagreed with each position.

Discussions of Bush and Kerry’s candidacies became emotionally charged, polarized and fervent. As I listened to people I knew talk fervently about who they supported or hated, I could see how fine the line between passion and violence could become. So easily, friends could become enemies. How easily we become “other” to each other — distant, isolated and unrelated selves.

A Race of Untouchables

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu was profoundly aware of the relationship between touch and our sense of connectedness, health and well-being. In his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, Montagu writes, “The communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of experience….it would greatly help our rehumanization if we would pay closer attention to the need we all have for tactual experience.”

Touch is a biological and developmental need. In her book Touch (MIT Press, 2003) researcher Tiffany Field notes, “Touch, more than any other sense, is universal across cultures and species. Most animals know touch is critical to life. Rat pups do not survive without their mother rat’s tongue-licking touch. Monkeys huddle in a corner when they are touch-deprived.”

People need touch to survive as well. Children who are touch-deprived don’t growth emotionally, physically and cognitively. Field cites a television show on Romanian orphans who are stick thin and unable to walk until aided by massage therapy and proper nutrition. Field comments, “A child’s first emotional bonds are built from physical contact, laying the foundation for further emotional and intellectual development.”

Yet, Americans are among the world’s least tactile people. In a culture that has, in the opinion of Montagu, “confounded love, sex, affection and touch,” people are so afraid of sexual abuse, that any touch becomes taboo. “No touch” policies abound. Children and older people may suffer the most. Field writes, “Teachers are no longer allowed to hug grade schoolers if they do well in class or pick up preschoolers when they fall on the playground.” Yet, despite all these mandates, Field acknowledges that the incidence of sexual abuse has not decreased and child abuse by daycare workers is on the rise.

So, children experience less loving, nurturing and comforting touch and learn to become overly self-reliant too young. This translates into disconnected, numb and isolated. Older people become isolated as they leave the workforce, survive the death of a partner, watch grown children move away, and turn to professional providers for care. Who is there to hug them, comfort them or hold their hand? Imagine what it is like to be an older person confined to bed rest in a nursing home, especially a man who suffers from society’s special taboos about men and touch. If touch is critical for learning, communication, comfort, reassurance and self-esteem, how can he get what he needs?

When people are touch-deprived, they become numb to the fundamental need to touch and be touched. They become touch-phobic, holding a hypervigilant tension in their bodies, keeping others at an emotional distance, operating from the head for protection while disconnected from the body and heart.,/p>

In his essay, “What Moves In a Movement,” Peter Gabel speaks of how we unconsciously collude in maintaining the great divide. Touch-deprived people, through their numbing and desensitization, perpetuate thoughts and behaviors that keep them isolated, disconnected, lonely and unfulfilled.

“Every morning, every one of us wakes up with the desire to overcome our isolation and connect with others in a meaningful, life-giving passionate way. We long for the sense of confirmation and validation that can come only from participation in real community. As we peer out at the day in front of us, however, we feel compelled to suppress this desire, to actually forget about it as best we can, because we have become resigned to the fact that no one else seems to want what each of us wants.”

“We each internalize the sense that in order to feel part of what little community there is in the world we must deny our deepest needs and adjust to things as they are…And so we don our various social masks and become ‘one of the others,’ in part by keeping others at the same distance we believe they are keeping us. In this way, social reality takes the form of a circle of ‘collective denial’ through which each of us becomes both agent and victim of an infinitely rotating system of social alienation.”

As I look at the lives of clients and friends who work in the corporate world, I can see all the energy it takes to keep the social masks on and the deeper self suppressed. Sadly, though, while many of these people yearn for a different experience, they often feel powerless to change things, and therefore accept life as they know it as “the way things are.”

How We Got Where We Are

People today are very much like the feral cats whose numbers have grown in many cities. Born on the streets or abandoned to the streets, the feral has often lacked food, shelter and protection. Upon meeting a human, the cat is likely to simultaneously experience starvation and terror. While desperately needing the food the human is offering, the animal may also be terrified of the harm that might come by relating with the human in any way. The terror often wins out over the starvation.

This kind of simultaneous starvation and terror occurs in people who are touch deprived. Deep down, the person desperately needs contact — emotional and physical. Yet, the strength of that deep need accompanied by hurts, passions and yearnings that live inside, may be so terrifying the person cannot be receptive to what they need. Just as one might ask why the feral population has exploded, we can also ask why human beings have become so feral.

Tiffany Field feels that sexual taboos and the development of drugs and medical technologies both contributed to our culture of untouchables. Fear of sexuality is sadly prevalent in our culture and we lack education about what it means to develop a healthy, mature and grounded sexual identity.

The technologization of health care has contributed to the “no touch” culture from a number of dimensions. The many technical tools that have been a common part of medical practice lead us to be put in machines and have monitors strapped on to us rather than be touched and evaluated by human hands. Writer Norman Cousins commented, “The physician celebrates computerized tomography. The patient celebrates the outstretched hand.”

Secondly, drugs, which have become more abundant over the past few decades, can either heighten sensitivity to touch or deaden the sense of touch. Field says, “Stimulants including amphetamines, cocaine and coffee…slow down blood circulation leaving a person feeling cold and jumpy to the touch. Depressants, including barbituates, narcotics and tranquilizers, dull the sense of touch. Muscle relaxants, tranquilizers and sleep-inducers break down inhibitions, but also tend to make people less sensitive to touch, as does alcohol, which can depress the system and touch sensitivity.”

Whether through the side effects of touch deprivation or chemical intervention many of us are walking around without being fully present in our bodies, lacking a sense of emotional attunement, energy awareness and groundedness. Compound that with a touch-phobic, low-touch norm of human relating, and it is easy to lose touch with our need for physical and emotional connection. So, people function by society’s standards while living with a primal sense of pain and disconnection, and a sophisticated array of tools to distance from these deeper feelings.

“Touch is our most social sense. Unlike seeing, hearing or smelling,” Field acknowledges, touch “typically implies an interaction with another person.”

The Health Impact of Touch Deprivation

Because human beings are wired to touch and be touched, the absence of touch causes disturbances in both mind and body. Touch helps create psychological and physical wellness, and touch deprivation contributes to illness at many levels.

Stress and relaxation:
Touch deprivation increases stress and body tension levels behaviorally and biochemically. We feel more pain, and have a harder time focusing on what needs our attention in the moment, and become less resilient to toxins that can instigate disease. Field explains that touch affects “both tactile and pressure receptors,” and “stimulates the central nervous system into a state of relaxation.” Touch can reduce anxiety and stress levels and bring forth a relaxed, more attentive state. Field cites specific effects, such as reduced pain for people with arthritis, “increased peak air flow” for people with asthma, and “increased natural killer cell activity” for HIV patients1.

Physical violence:
Research by Dr. J. H. Prescott has suggested that touch deprivation in childhood leads to physical violence. In a study conducted in forty-nine non-industrial countries, from the Ainu in Japan to the Zuni in New Mexico, Prescott found that most juvenile delinquents and criminals come from neglectful or abusive parents. In an article published in 1971, Prescott theorizes that “the deprivation of body touch, contact and movement are the basic causes of a number of emotional disturbances including depressive and autistic behaviors, hyperactivity, sexual aberration, drug use, violence and aggression.”2 His theory is that the lack of sensory stimulation in childhood leads to an addiction to sensory stimulation in adulthood resulting in deliquency, drug use and crime.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead also found a correlation between touch of children and aggression. She found that cultures where children experience constant physical contact, like the Arapesh, have non-aggressive, gentle adults. Arapesh infants are always carried in a small net bag worn on the body by their mothers. This allows the child to experience constant physical contact and on-demand breastfeeding. Warfare is not practiced in the Arapesh society. In contrast, within the same country, the Mundugamoor people are relatively aggressive, warring people. Mundugamoor infants are carried in a basket suspended from the mother’s forehead, out of contact with the mother’s body.

Sleep difficulties:
When my son was an infant, I learned quickly that the easiest and most natural way to help him fall asleep when he was tired was to hold and nurse him. I could feel him relax, replenish himself and gently drift away into a deep and peaceful sleep. Tiffany Field’s research found a strong relationship to touch deprivation and sleep disturbance. “In all our studies where young children were separated from their mothers, whether it was because their mothers were hospitalized for the birth of another child or because their mothers were away at out-of-town conferences, the children’s sleep was always affected.” Field also cites a study of adolescents hospitalized in psychiatric units who received massage therapy as part of their treatment. After being massaged for one-half hour a day for a week, these adolescents developed better organized sleep patterns. Field also cites many studies linking touch deprivation and growth deprivation. “Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children raised in orphanages had a less than fifty-fifty chance of reaching puberty.”

Cardiovascular disease:
Cardiovascular disease is often exacerbated by a lack of contact with other people. I have always viewed hands as an extension of the heart, helping us reach out and connect heart-to-heart, giving and receiving. There are many studies that illustrate that those who have more contact with others are protected from heart disease. The Framingham Heart Study showed that married couples live longer lives and single and widowed people lived shortened lives.3 Dr. Jules Older claims that for every major cause of death, including heart disease, divorced men stand a two to six times greater chance of dying than married men.

Here are some things you can do to “get back in touch.” As you get more in touch with yourself and your loved ones, you will probably feel lighter, more vital, happier and more connected to people and to life.

  1. Get to know your own body.
    Touch yourself. Try different qualities of touch — light, deep, still, moving. Learn how you like to be touched.
  2. Talk with a friend or partner about your touching history.
    How have you learned about touch? How much touch did you receive as a child? As an adult today? Have you been hurt through touch or lack of touch? What are your touch needs?
  3. Recognize that non-sexual nurturing touch is a basic human need, distinct from sexual touch.
    In our culture, it is too easy to think of touch as only sexual. We have forgotten that emotionally nurturing, warm, non-sexual touch is also a human need. A hand on the shoulder can symbolize friendship or support. A hug offers comfort when we are sad or friendship when we greet or take leave of a friend. Holding a hand says, “I’m here with you.”
  4. Let yourself be touched.
    Watch a movie that includes love and affection and notice the feelings it brings up for you. Do you feel sad, scared, angry or uncomfortable? Do you smile? Listen to a song that touches your heart. If you are with a friend or family member you care about, share a hug. Make an appointment to get a professional massage.
  5. Look for opportunities to substitute touching for talking.
    In The Power of Touch (Hay House, 1999), Phyllis Davis writes, “Touch is a language that can communicate more love in five seconds than words can in five minutes.” Yet, in our distance-oriented culture, we’ve learned to replace touch with talk.
  6. Make time for face to face relating.
    Don’t let yourself be quite so busy. Pick up the phone and invite a friend or loved one to dinner instead of spending the night on e-mail.
  7. Go dancing.
    Partner dances, like Swing, Cha Cha, Salsa, Waltz, etc., integrate touch at the very heart of the dance.
  8. Lend a helping hand.
    Be proactive. Reach out. Ask permission and be respectful, yet willing to be of support.
  9. Pet a dog or cat.
    Stroking a four-legged animal provides two-way love and affection.


  1. Tiffany Field’s excellent book Touch, MIT Press, 2003, is full of various research citations.
  2. J. H. Prescott cited in Medical Primatology, edited by E.I. Goldsmith and J. Moor-Jankowski. S. Karger, NY. 1971.
  3. Framingham Heart Study is an ongoing medical study initiated in 1948 and administered by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The study is based out of Framingham, MA.
  4. Jules Older, cited in Touching Is Healing, Stein and Day, 1985.

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced body psychotherapy with individuals, couples and groups for more than twenty years. She is the founder of the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network and is the author of Healing the War Between the Genders: The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship (HeartPower Press, 2004) and Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart (Knowledge Systems, Inc, 1989). She can be reached at or 617-965-7846. Please visit for more information.