Neuroscience of Empathy, Emotions, Touch

yay-9914062How does neuroscience relate to what makes a massage feel good? What actions by a friend, partner or counselor make you feel heard and acknowledged? What is happening inside a child as he/she bursts into delight as for “getting it right”, or when they snuggle in to be held? The neuroscience study of empathy in human relationship involves all of these. “Feeling better”, whether by massage, validation, the touch of a friend, good parenting, the support of family or a therapy session is part of interpersonal neuroscience.

Neuroscience of Relationship

Good relationships require empathy. One of our ethical challenges as humans is to increase our feelings of empathy and act on them. However, empathy naturally varies between people. It depends on your gender, age, social training, brain wiring, preference, and personal receptivity. Many of these factors are below our conscious awareness. But we can train ourselves to improve a few of them. (See Meditation and Brain Power.)

When everything works, relationships of empathy trigger the release of beneficial neurotransmitters.1 These are nervous system messengers. They keep your wiring humming. You have heard about many of them–dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins. Whether they relieve pain or depression, or help you feel connected to your family, they are partly activated by your body-mind’s response to relationships.

neuroscience of human relationship yay-7978526There is a neuroscience of empathy in raising children, personal intimacy or psychotherapy. There is a neuroscience of social touch, although Gallace and Spence believe research could improve: “Despite its importance for our emotional well-being, the study of the interpersonal and emotional aspects of touch have been somewhat neglected by cognitive scientists over the years.”2  There is even greater neglect for the neuroscience of therapeutic massage or other touch therapies.

Neuroscience of Massage Therapy?

Wait! Isn’t massage just about muscles and fascia? Or, perhaps it is the mechanics of joint movement, skin, strokes or pressure? It’s more. In fact, every time I touch you, I am connecting with your nervous system.

Your brain registers a different experience for light or deep touch, vibration, pain, heat, the speed of a stroke, and changes in movement around a joint. For example, slow gentle strokes can stimulate specific nerve fibers for pain relief. Because of this, the touch of massage therapy is more than just skin deep.3 It affects your brain. Your immune system. Your digestion. And even your heart!

yay-9877414olderwoman pleasant shoulderMassage and Emotions

What about improved mood? Dr. Christopher Moyer notes “these (massage) effects on anxiety and depression are the most well-established effects in the MT research literature”.4 Many studies have found that massage relieves emotions as well as physical pain. Even more significant is that massage benefits may well be independent of technique. They may rather be related to how we respond physically and emotionally to human relationship and touch.5 Empathy in massage is not studied as deeply as neurotransmitters. Although, perhaps it needs to be.

Another finding moves us away from the strictly mechanical effects of massage. Did you know that we, as massage practitioners, don’t make a muscle relax? In fact, relaxation is not a result of how much pressure we apply. It’s your nervous system that sends the signal to relax. Your nervous system is your “friend with benefits.” (See my post, The Woo is in You!)

canstockphoto7434260How does bodywork bring relief?

As bodyworkers, we don’t try to elicit emotional reactions. We are not psychoanalysts. But emotions are embodied.6,7 Emotions can change when your movements are no longer stiff, contracted, tightly bound to stressful events. Additionally, touch allows the emotions to ease, giving you freedom to change.

David Lauterstein is the head of Texas’s Lauterstein-Conway Massage School. He says when we touch you with full awareness, we may touch you deeply in who you are.8 In your embodied sense of self, you feel acknowledged. We give you recognition and validation through touch.

Richard Valasek’s9 Unphased Ortho-Bionomy® goes even further. He teaches that the art of our focused presence brings the most important healing benefit. Again, it’s not necessarily the technique, or the school that someone trained in.

David Butler, physiotherapist, is an instructor of Graded Motor Imagery,10 and co-author of Explain Pain. He echoes Valasek’s observations. After training in numerous techniques, he found his rate of success went down as he got jaded: “What bugs me is that it took so long to realise that it was I myself who was probably the main variable in outcomes – not the techniques.”11

Neuroscience of Empathy in Bodywork

We fire mirror neurons in our brains when we observe someone’s behavior. They operate from infancy, so that we can observe and learn. But not only for learning. Empathy is when we experience what is happening to another person as if is happening to ourselves. Touch combined with the effect of mirror neurons contributes to empathy.12

In a session, your massage therapist activates empathic resonance. And this resonance operates through multiple senses. You may see what is familiar or welcoming visually, when you first come into the office. Then, you may like what you hear. If the practitioner is listening well, you may then feel heard. And finally, you are invited to ask for the right touch. Altogether, these bring you comfort. These all contribute to empathic resonance.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a good fit with some practitioners and not others? There’s neuroscience behind a good fit. It is part of the reason you want to go back.

I invite you to contact me with questions via the contact form, leave comments below or schedule an appointment from Schedule Appointment. Or call 503-708-2911.

Resources and References:



Leslie Michel, MD & Rodney Shackelford, DO, Ph.D., The Molecular Biology of Compassion

2 Gallace A, Spence C. The science of interpersonal touch: an overview.
3 Loken et al. Coding of pleasant touch by unmyelinated afferents in humans. Nature Neuroscience. 2009. PubMed #19363489.
4 Moyer, Christopher A. Affective massage therapy. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2008. PubMed #21589715
5 Field, TM. Massage Therapy Effects and Moderate Pressure Massage Elicits a Parasympathetic Response
6 Marion Rosen, Rosen Method Bodywork: Accessing the unconscious through touch
7 Joan Borysenko, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind; Stanley Keleman Emotional Anatomy; Thomas Hanna, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health; Louise Hay, Heal Your Body.
8 David Lauterstein’s Deep Massage  – YouTube and Deep Tissue vs. Deep Massage
9 Richard Valasek is a senior Advanced Instructor of Ortho-Bionomy®
10Graded Motor Imagery Handbook by Prof. Lorimer Mosely
11The Rollercoaster of Professional Life, by David Butler.
12 Carr, Neural Mechanisms of Empathy in Humans. Also see Staemmler’s Empathy in Psychotherapy and Critical Neuroscience: Social and Cultural Contexts by Suparna Choudhury, and Jan Slaby, eds. Also, Decety & Ickes’ Social Empathy.

Ortho-Bionomy® is a registered trademark of the Society of Ortho-Bionomy International, Inc. and is used with permission.
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