In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Touch and Massage Therapy Research

  • Introduction
  • Negative Effects of Touch Deprivation on Development in Humans and Animals
  • Emotions and Touch
  • Touch and Compliance
  • Physiological and Biochemical Effects of Touch
  • Pleasant or Affective Touch versus Discriminative Touch

Psychology Social Touch and Massage Therapy Research
Tiffany Field
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0194


Touch has the longest definition (fourteen columns) of all definitions in the Oxford Dictionary and is defined as “the most general of the bodily senses, diffused through all parts of skin, but (in man) specially developed in the tips of the fingers and the lips.” The Dictionary of the Russian Language says, “In reality all five senses can be reduced to one—the sense of touch. The tongue and palate sense the food; the ear, sound waves; the nose, emanation; the eyes, rays of light.” In addition, the four senses that have been recently added could be grouped under touch, including pressure, itch, pain, and thermo-perception, even though different receptors are involved in these senses. As the research field on touch has evolved, all of these forms of touch have been studied as separate topics, as have the roles of touch. Different investigators have researched the roles of touch in early development, the effects of touch deprivation, touch in communication including emotions and personal relationships, physiological and biochemical effects of touch, and affective versus discriminative touch. Massage therapy research has also been included in volumes on touch inasmuch as massage is one of the most powerful forms of therapeutic touch.

Touch in Development

From the beginning of life, touch is critical for development. During fetal development, the fetus is enveloped in amniotic fluid that conveys tactile stimulation from the mother’s movements. During the newborn and infancy periods, parents and caregivers are a primary source of stimulation, although infants also touch objects with their mouth and then their hands to learn their properties. Children receive less touch given that teachers are often mandated not to touch them. In countries where children receive more touch, for example, France, the children are less aggressive. Similar data have been reported for adolescents touching each other more and being less verbally and physically aggressive than their counterparts in the United States. Although adults have been noted to reduce stress in each other by holding hands or hugging, there is a growing discomfort and avoidance of touch in general, and with aging there is a general impairment of touch perception.

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