Positive Psychology and Touch
When we started our business seven years ago we had a notion that human touch played a vital role in wellbeing. We took the unusual step of building a business which combined massage with psychology and coaching.
It turns out that we may have been onto something. Recent research suggests that human touch, especially during childhood, has a crucial interaction with neural plasticity. Neural plasticity is the emerging field of study which suggests that our brain chemistry is influenced by our experiences in life. With tenacity we can learn to use our brains in extremely complex ways, learn new skills and re-learn lost skills. For example stroke victims with real, permanent physical damage to parts of their brains can re-learn old skills by using parts of their brains not commonly associated with a particular activity.
Up until fairly recently, it was thought that the various regions of the brain were exclusively responsible for different activities such as; touch, sight, sound, smell and balance etc. It turns out that with training we can learn to adapt and compensate for perceived or real deficiencies. Amazingly parts of the brain commonly associated with vision can be adapted to handle information from the hearing system. Previously held beliefs that the adult brain does not grow new cells have been refuted. New cells in the brain can grow and new connections can be made between neurons. To give you an example of how complex the brain is there are 30 billion neurons in the human cortex alone, the part of the brain used mainly for complex pattern formation and decision making, capable of making 1000 trillion connections (10 followed by 14 zeros). There are an estimated 1000 billion neurons in the entire nervous sytem. Think of these connections as new possibilities and then consider that the number of all possible neural circuits is 10 followed by a million zeros (there are an estimated 10 followed by 79 zeros, particles in the known universe). The ability to learn, think and represent the world in new ways is probably infinitely adaptable.
The brain is malleable, particularly during childhood, and with training can change and develop. The degree to which personality and intelligence can be adjusted through training is still under heated discussion but it is becoming apparent that with the correct tools we can learn to re-tune the way we think, learn and perceive the world.
Studies suggest that our ability to learn and stay open to new experiences depends upon the brain remaining fluid and that openness is enhanced through human touch. The mechanism by which touch assists this process is little understood but there are suggestions that a neurotransmitter called oxytocin may play a vital role. People may become closed and set in their ways without the vital ingredient of touch. The implications of these findings are stark. In a world where many of us are touched less, including children at vital stages of brain development, more of us communicate through digital media and live alone, there may be an increased prevalence of people becoming fixed in their style of thinking.
There is a Polynesian tribe who take turns to massage, for 24 hours, the adolescent heir to the chief of the tribe. This may have similar benefits to communal grooming but perhaps it also ensures that the future chief has the plasticity of his brain supercharged so that he remains open to new experience.
At Breathe London we believe that touch is a cornerstone of wellbeing. To learn more about our physical therapies go to http://www.breathe-london.com/massage
To learn more about neural plasticity got to Norman Doidge’s site http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge
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