Touch Me Baby

Psychologist Tiffany Field is developing scientific evidence that "touch therapy" promotes health. At her Touch Research Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Miami School of Medicine, she has conducted 50 touch-related studies. They're not New Age fluff pieces, either, but rigorous science that has been published in peer-reviewed journals.For Dr. Field's initial studies, premature babies were given 15-minute massages three times daily for 10 days. These babies gained 47 percent more weight and were able to leave the hospital six days earlier than equally ill infants. Eight months later, the massaged babies maintained their lead in weight gain, yet outdistanced their nursery-mates in mental and motor skills. Dr. Field also conducted a study regarding how massage affects mental performance and job stress. Office workers received either massage therapy or simple relaxation in a reclining chair twice weekly for five weeks. All participants were hooked up to EEG machines to monitor brain waves. Math tests were also administered before and after massage or relaxation; upon completion, individuals reported any feelings of stress. Brain waves indicated increased relaxation for both groups. Only the massage participants showed brain activity reflecting greater mental alertness.After massage they completed math problems in less time and made fewer errors. In addition, their feelings of job stress plummeted over the five weeks, another benefit not found in those who had just relaxed in a chair. Other Field studies reveal that massage benefits asthmatics' breathing, boosts the immune function in HIV-positive patients, reduces disease-related pain levels, and improves autistic children's ability to concentrate.However, neither Dr. Field nor any other researcher can explain how massage affects health. While stress hormones fall after massage, other neurological mechanisms are thought to be involved. Baby rats separated from mothers suffer a dramatic drop in growth hormones, but injections of these hormones do not promote growth in these infants. Only stroking with a wet paintbrush, which mimics the mother's touch, promotes growth. In humans we sometimes see "failure to thrive" in well-fed but untouched babies. Those preemies, hooked up to lifesaving high-tech machines, likewise need touch. We seem to be hard-wired from birth to require touch for survival; skin hunger appears to be genuine and does not disappear as we age. Touch affects our health through the hormonal and nervous systems. It is not just skin deep.

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