The Somatosensory & Affective Neuroscience Group, NSP, Byrom Street, Liverpool, L3 3AF

Spinal Column: we all benefit from a tender touch – Melanie Reid, The Times

Spinal Column: we all benefit from a tender touch – Melanie Reid, The Times

Melanie Reid MBE is an award-winning Times journalist whose weekly column for The Times, ‘Spinal Column’, is about disability and her life as a disabled person – Melanie is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident.

On November 25 2017, she wrote a column on the benefits of tender touch, in part as a response to the growing concerns about “inappropriate touch” following a number of high-profile revelations of harassment.

In it, she quotes from research into the effects of touch, her own experiences, and conversations with SomAffect’s Francis McGlone, raising many of the issues covered at IASAT2017.

The article is reproduced below; © Times Newspapers Ltd. / Melanie Reid.


Spinal column: we all benefit from a tender touch

“People like me aren’t too fragile to be touched. We long for physical contact – just like you”


Weeks pass, every one bearing some fresh, sad harvest of accusation. He touched me! My leg was stroked! My teacher touched my arm – it’s abuse! In our rush to condemn a few creeps, we are universally demonising something that is vital to us: human contact.

And I sit in my chair, my metal stockade, fenced off from touch, despairing at how we cheapen and threaten something so precious. Since I last wrote about this, I have seen touch become synonymous with assault and abuse. This is tragic. We have to combat it.

Experts are appalled how touch-averse we are becoming. Professor Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University, told me he fears teachers, carers and adoptive parents are now running scared.

Dave Hewett, a specialist in communication, sent me a moving account of how adults with multiple disabilities and very restricted motor ability will play together if allowed. At one enlightened centre, three young women and two young men, none of whom could speak, were regularly hoisted from their wheelchairs and lowered into a large, soft corner area, very close to each other. In slow motion, they started to roll, pat, stroke, prod and push each other. They became noisy. They obviously had a wonderful time.

The students had known each other since they were children. First the staff had noticed how they reached out to each other if their chairs were accidently parked close together – normally, they weren’t. The staff then tried putting them together on cushions, monitoring them carefully, and were amazed at the result.

For people with profound learning difficulties, for anyone who lives in a wheelchair – and indeed, if the present madness continues, for every one of us – experts now acknowledge a real danger of social deprivation, of being the “untouched”. Strapped behind physical barriers, the disabled especially can seem too fragile, awkward and physically unyielding, and may only be touched in functional ways. Many are only pushed, pulled, lifted, tightened, loosened, dabbed, wiped, changed, fed, scraped. Can you imagine anything worse than a lifetime of only ever being touched briskly and efficiently? I inhabit the fringes of that. It’s a barren place.

Please, disregard the gropers. Remember instead the stories about touching that really matter: the study that showed how premature babies who are stroked, compared with those who weren’t, put on 50 per cent more weight, were able to leave hospital six days earlier, and a year later had better mental and physical abilities. This research was perfectly framed by the recent case of the premature twins, struggling for breath in separate incubators, who on their mother’s pleading were reunited. They immediately put their arms around each other and began, dramatically, to thrive. They had been starving for touch. We forget that without nurture and touch, or when locked in orphanages, babies die. And adults falter.

Evidence is everywhere. Patients who are touched by a nurse the day before an operation decrease their subjective and objective level of stress. Gentle stroking lowers blood pressure and increases pain thresholds, and can protect the brain from stroke damage. Sports teams that touch more win more – players on NBA basketball teams who spent time in celebratory fist bumps, high fives or half-hugs early in the season could predict an improved performance months later. And what is the success of the spa industry based on, if not our craving for touch?

Rather thrillingly, Professor McGlone, with colleagues in Sweden, has identified touch-sensitive nerves, called c-tactile afferents (CT), which register emotional touch rather than “sensing” touch. We carry these nerves on hairy bits of skin – our forearms and back, always hungry for a gentle caress or other so-called light or innocuous touch. Touch deprivation, he says, is the lack of CT – emotional touch.

And it’s the glue that binds all social mammals together. Touch is primal – it helps us forge connections and construct a sense of self, makes us aware of our own bodies and allows us to relate to people. It’s possible, as with the premature babies, it is linked to survival itself.

So bugger the revival of age-old puritanism. Hug everyone who looks like they need it. Dance, link arms, hold hands. And hold on to the wonderful image of those disabled adults, rolling on the floor twice a week, prodding each other with joy and laughter.

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