Touch Enhances Health and Well-Being

…a pediatrician named Henry Bakwin took charge of the pediatric ward at Bellevue hospital. When Bakwin took command of the ward, there was a sign on its door saying that no one was to enter unless they had scrubbed twice. Bakwin had that sign removed and replaced with one that said “Do not enter this nursery without picking up a baby.” Nurses were instructed to hold the babies on their laps and cuddle them periodically. Despite the greater likelihood of contact with germs, infection rates dropped! Apparently physical contact trumped sterilization.

“…when people seek out contact comfort when stressed, they are following a path that is probably deeply engrained in our brains. There is much more to be said about the benefits of contact comfort, but I want to save that for later. Next it is time for something completely different.”

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A story in James Lynch’s book The Broken Heart has stuck in my mind for several decades. Lynch was studying the heart’s response to human contact in hospital coronary care and trauma units. This was an extensive study, involving many patients, but the example that stayed with me was the story of a 54-year old man who died after 14 days in intensive care.

This man had a history of anxiety attacks and alcoholism. No one came to visit him during his 14 days in the hospital. Toward the end, he was comatose. A machine did his breathing for him. His heartbeat lacked the rhythm found in normal hearts, so it could no longer adequately carry out its task of pumping the blood needed by other organs.

As Lynch observed his chaotic heartbeat on a screen, a nurse came in and took the man’s hand. His heartbeat immediately became dramatically slower and more regular as she comforted him. When she released his hand and went on to other duties, the irregularities quickly returned. Simple physical touch had worked wonders for his dying heart.

This calming of the heart in response to touch was observed by Lynch in patient after patient. In this particular case the person doing the touching was an unfamiliar human being. Other evidence gathered by Lynch and many others showed that it probably would have had an even greater impact if a pet, especially a familiar one, had been touching him. In general, there is evidence that when humans pet animals, heart rate and blood pressure go down in both of them.

Another set of findings reveals even more about the power of contact on our health. In the early 1900’s death rates for hospitalized babies were remarkably high. A report that came out in 1915 indicated that infants admitted to 10 American asylums (a term used then for foundling homes and orphanages) had death rates from 31.5 to 75 percent.

The response to this was to institute elaborate procedures for keeping the wards as sterile as possible. Staff wore meticulously sterilized white gowns and gloves. Picking the babies up was viewed as increasing the risk of infection. To avoid contamination, in some institutions babies were fed with propped up bottles and had to eat without being held.

In this context a pediatrician named Henry Bakwin took charge of the pediatric ward at Bellevue hospital. When Bakwin took command of the ward, there was a sign on its door saying that no one was to enter unless they had scrubbed twice. Bakwin had that sign removed and replaced with one that said “Do not enter this nursery without picking up a baby.” Nurses were instructed to hold the babies on their laps and cuddle them periodically. Despite the greater likelihood of contact with germs, infection rates dropped! Apparently physical contact trumped sterilization.

The work of psychologist Harry Harlow strengthened evidence of the importance of contact. Harlow ran a primate laboratory at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Psychology. He needed monkeys for his research, but they were difficult and expensive to obtain. Furthermore, they commonly arrived in a diseased condition. Many of them died.

Harlow decided to find out how to breed his own monkeys. Out of concern about diseases, Harlow attempted to raise newborn monkeys in a sterilized environment that inadvertently came very close to repeating the failed methods of children’s asylums. The animals were raised by humans with meticulous care, including excellent diets. Monkeys raised in this way appeared to be deranged. For them every new thing they encountered was a major catastrophe. They curled their bodies in a fetal position and rocked, often compulsively sucking parts of their bodies. When the time came for them to breed, they could not cope with the potential mate, seemingly overwhelmed by its presence.

Eventually Harlow and his colleagues conducted the now famous (or, for many, infamous) experiments in which baby monkeys were raised in the presence of a soft, cuddly artificial “mother” who provided no food, and a cold, wire “mother” with a baby bottle attached to it. Most psychologists those days would have predicted with certainty that the monkeys would attach to the wire mother that was a source of food. To the contrary, they clung to the cloth mother and only moved to the wire one for brief feeding sessions. I have seen a picture of one of these monkeys clinging to the soft mother while stretching over to get milk from the wire mother.

Monkeys raised with any kind of artificial mothers appeared to be very abnormal, but those raised without a soft, cuddly artificial mother behaved in bizarrely abnormal ways. In later work, monkeys raised without a mother but with another baby monkey as cage-mate clung to each other so intensely that, when allowed to leave the cage, they would not let go of each other and rolled out of the cage in a two-monkey ball.

So when people seek out contact comfort when stressed, they are following a path that is probably deeply engrained in our brains. There is much more to be said about the benefits of contact comfort, but I want to save that for later. Next it is time for something completely different.

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One Response to Touch Enhances Health and Well-Being

  1. Cheryl says:

    This article reminds me of why I went to grad school & studied psychology. I was working as a nurse in a Surgical Intensive Care Unit and observed that simple things made a huge difference in a person getting off of a ventilator (a machine that breathes for a person). When the doctors asked what I did to facillitate the patient getting off the ventilator I told them that I did simple things like explain what each sound was they were hearing, what the process of getting off a ventilator would feel like, I held their hand while I was in the room when I could, I made sure they were tucked in so that there were not drafts from under the sheets or blankets, and I gave them a pen & paper to write with giving them a way to communicate since they could not talk.

    I made sure the room was free of clutter so that it would have a peaceful feel rather than a chaotic feel to it. I myself was amazed at how much difference it made in such a high tech world. I never lost a patient in the ICU, I never once had a patient code in the ICU, and they all got better, even those not expected to live.