Society is in trouble because we have a lack of, a dearth of meaningful contact with each other, especially touch. Look around… automatic bank machines, self check-outs, iPads in restaurants. Everywhere you go, people isolate themselves with their smartphones, earphones, heads down, avoiding eye contact. If one lives alone and doesn’t take public transit, it’s entirely possible to go through a week speaking with less than a dozen people and a month without physical contact with a single person. We call it “convenience”, “efficiency” and “cost effectiveness” to replace human services members with machines and do-it-yourself.
We can’t blame Steve Jobs for our current situation. The hands-off approach is something deeply ingrained in Western culture. For centuries now, parents have been told not to pick up their crying babies, lest they’ll be spoiled. Early independence is so much a part of Western culture that even before a baby is born, we are decorating a beautiful nursery, with the expectation the baby will spend the night and many daytime hours there, sleeping on their own. Humans are the only mammals that push their babies away at bedtime when the innate fear of danger is at its greatest.
From birth, our largest external sensory organ is our skin. Keeping the newborn in mom’s gentle embrace gives baby proximity to mom’s smell, the delicious breastmilk, reassuring sound of mom’s voice and heartbeat. Most importantly, baby gets the feeling of safety and security within that warm embrace. Scientists and conventional thinking place food, water and physical needs as primaries and emotional needs secondarily. A study of infant-chimpanzees, though, showed that given a choice of a barbed metal dummy mom with milk or a soft stuffed animal “mom”, the infants chose to spend most of their time in the embrace of the soft “mom” and only went to the milk mom for brief periods of time, when absolutely hungry. This experiment, done in the 1960’s, would not be repeated today, because in both cases, the babies were emotionally traumatized by their separation from their mothers.
In the not-too-distant past, it was believed that babies didn’t feel pain, and therefore their cries could be ignored. Only in the past 25 years did doctors start using anesthesia for surgery on an infant’s delicate foreskin – circumcision. Moms were told they were being “weak” when they caved to their babies’ cries at night and picked them up, or, God-forbid, rocked them to sleep, nursed them to sleep, or slept with them in the same bed.
Who was best at following the hands-off rule?
Institutions, like underfunded orphanages. It’s easier to turn off the maternal instinct when it’s not your child, you’re overworked, and you may not like children in the first place. Of course, not all institutions or caregivers are like this, but some are. Studies in orphanages in Eastern Europe repeatedly found that the infants there had delays in physical growth, mental development, and were much more likely to develop emotional or behavioural problems. These babies’ physical necessities were met, but just barely. They spent 23 hours a day in their cribs and touch was discouraged because the babies would then cry for more. In time, the babies learned to stop crying for attention and became, for the most part, unresponsive and numb to the world.
Can babies really “learn to self-soothe”? We’re not talking about the calm, happy babies who falls asleep easily on their own. “Self-soothing” implies that babies who are upset and crying have developed coping mechanisms to calm themselves down, perhaps by quietly whimpering or using a pacifier or favourite toy. You can quantify how stressed a baby is feeling by measuring their blood cortisol (stress hormone) level. Of course, cortisol is extremely high when a baby is crying, (Yes! Babies can feel pain) and low when in the comfort of mom’s arms and happily nursing. What’s interesting is that babies who successfully “self-soothed” in the cry-it-out techniques still had high levels of cortisol even as their cries stopped (not unlike the baby chimpanzees in the aforementioned experiment).
Touch has an amazing effect of lowering stress levels, especially a hug, but even holding hands or a pat on the back, and we’re not just talking about babies. To touch someone, you must be within arm’s reach. Sensitive people will feel your presence even without actual physical contact. Generally, you’re aware of that person’s presence and acknowledge it. Especially in children, the desire to feel known is so strong that they may misbehave so that the adult is forced to acknowledge their presence. Even a negative touch (i.e. spanking) can be more desirable than feeling like you don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s sad, then, that some school districts explicitly prohibit teachers from hugging or touching kids, lest it be mistaken for a sexual-type touch.
Touch also works very well to convey emotions of empathy, support, celebration and love that can transcend the limitations of language. This is why it works so well with babies, animals, and occasions when words fail you. Touch helps babies and children gain emotional control when life gets out of hand. Teens and adults can also benefit from the emotional release allowed in a hug. When someone is frustrated and venting, a hug says: “I hear you. Life is hard. You can be safe in my arms right now. You’re not alone.” When the response is a direct verbal solution to the problem (how most men reflexively respond), the complainant (most women or children) hear, “it’s your fault because you did “X” wrong. Now, do this other task to clean up your own mistakes.” A hug dissolves stress and tension and cortisol goes down. Direct problem solving may create more tension, this time directed at the person who tried to help.
In this day and age, modernism and the cult of science dominate our values and ways of thinking. Only those parameters that can be measured in a specific type of experiment are what supposedly counts. Objective measures, such as reduced time spent crying, or more time spent asleep would be considered successful sleep training. Subjective aspects, like emotions, are much more difficult to interpret, quantify and reproduce, and therefore carry far less significance scientifically. How would you measure disappointment, despair, fear, rejection, or feelings of low self-worth?
Healing professions are under the same pressure to provide acceptable scientific evidence to back up their claims. As protocols become more and more specific and high tech, they have also become less personal and low-touch. Machines are seen as more scientific and therefore more valuable for healing than manual therapies like chiropractic adjustments. Even chiropractors are being pressured to limit their scope of practice to mechanical adjustments for relief of acute spinal pain. In the scientific model, the gold standard is using a “double-blind” experiment where neither the doctor, nor the patient knows whether they are receiving the actual treatment. Results are only considered “real” when both parties are impartial. This is the opposite of connecting with each other and working together to bring about the greatest positive changes.
The roots of chiropractic, however, is not a reductionist, scientific model. It is much more in line with the holistic philosophy of Eastern healing. While there is a component of alleviating symptoms, the true path to healing is through removing interferences to normal function throughout the body. A problem in one area can create issues elsewhere and a symptom, like headaches, may be the result of one or more imbalances in the body. Thus 2 identical-looking headaches may require very different types of care depending on the underlying problem.
Touch is central to chiropractic care, and not all touch is equal. The pinnacle of chiropractic care is the trifecta of using your hands, along with your mind (head), and heart (caring). It takes skill, practice and training to develop finesse in the art of adjusting. It takes ongoing studying and mentorship to learn how to best take care of patients and to get to the root of their problems. It takes caring and intense focus to connect with the patient to tap into a greater power unexplained by science alone. What some call the “placebo effect”, others call “energy healing” or “faith healing” or “inspired healing”. There’s a difference between mass-produced spaghetti sauce and grandma’s special recipe just like there’s difference between a laugh-track and a live audience genuinely appreciating a well-delivered joke.
We have a dearth of touch in our modern society and it’s affecting our well-being as a whole. The Western culture has disproportionately punished boys with a distorted attitude towards touch. Any sign of vulnerability, like wanting a hug or public displays of affection, are attacked by society. These emotions then become bottled up and the only acceptable release are aggression or sexual domination. We are losing touch with our humanity by not having enough connection with each other, with nature, our own inner spirit and the greater energy around us. As we lose this connection, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing we’re on our own. When this is the case, we put undue pressure on our selves, thinking we can create security with material goods, fame, power, influence over others, physical or intellectual superiority. When we look at celebrities with the fame, power, money, looks, and influence, many are still empty inside… unsatisfied, unhappy, insecure. There must be another answer.
The answer is that we need much more touch in our lives, starting from the very beginning. Let’s honour our innate need to be touched, cradled, embraced, and loved. Let’s allow children and adults to feel vulnerable and turn to others, ask for, and accept help. Let’s make touch a regular occurrence in our lives, like regular and ongoing chiropractic care. Let’s not be limited to parameters as defined by science and embrace the fullness of life and healing. Alleviation of discrete symptoms is not the same thing as increasing the expression of your true potential. Not everybody knows or cares about this distinction, but for discerning people, we are here for you.