Neuroscience of Empathy, Emotions, Touch

yay-9914062Does neuroscience have anything to do with what makes a massage feel good? When we look at touch, we are looking more than skin deep. We are looking at how humans as a species have survived and how we relate to each other. We are looking at our individual histories, our emotions, and how touch can make us feel held, loved, seen, alive.

What is happening inside a child as he/she snuggles in to be held? Even though the need to be held is the same for each child, the experience may not be the same. Neuroscience is about our wiring. It is also about our individuality. And the capacity for empathy can fine tune the differences. “Feeling better”, whether by massage, the support of a friend, therapy or good parenting is part of interpersonal neuroscience.

Neuroscience of Relationship

neuroscience of human relationship yay-7978526Good relationships require empathy. However, empathy naturally varies between people. It depends on your gender, age, social training, brain wiring, and personal receptivity. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to improve empathy. (See Meditation and Brain Power.)

When everything works, empathic relationships trigger the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters.1 You have heard about many of them–dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins.

There 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.

yay-9877414olderwoman pleasant shoulderMassage and Emotions

Dr. Christopher Moyer notes “these (massage) effects on anxiety and depression are the most well-established effects in the MT research literature”.3 The emotional benefits may well be independent of technique. They may instead be related to how we respond to human relationship.4

Another discovery strengthens your role in terms of massage benefits, instead of the therapist. For example, did you know that we, as massage practitioners, don’t make a muscle relax? Actually, 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!)

canstockphoto7434260The emotional life of the body

As bodyworkers, we don’t try to elicit emotional reactions. We are not psychoanalysts. But emotions are embodied.5,6 Emotions can change when your movements are no longer stiff. “Flexibility” applies equally to emotions, when your body releases from stressful events. Then, mindful movement also allows the emotions to ease, giving you freedom to change.

Resilience also comes from mindful relationship. Richard Valasek’s7 Unphased Ortho-Bionomy® teaches that the art of our focused presence has the strongest effect on our clients. So, it’s not necessarily the technique, or the school that someone trained in.

David Butler, physiotherapist, is an instructor of Graded Motor Imagery,8 and co-author of Explain Pain. He echoes Valasek’s observations. After training in numerous techniques, Butler noticed that his success declined 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.”9

All the more reason to look for a good fit with your therapist. Resonance is everything!

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.

In a session, your therapist uses empathy to connect with you. Whether in bodywork or talk therapy, our wiring responds to the sense that we are seen and heard. Touch feels safe, and allows you to open to empathy when you are recognized as a whole person.

2020 Update

I no longer do in-person sessions. So, I do video sessions in which I look and listen closely. My training in mindfulness allows me to track what is happening with you emotionally as well as physically.

MABT, Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy has become a support for many clients during this pandemic. I usually offer it as an 8 session series.This allows you to build skills so that you can increase your own embodiment and emotional awareness. Even in the face of trauma, you can use these skills to feel empowered with greater mindfulness and greater self-compassion.

I still do Ortho-Bionomy when you need physical healing. Instead of direct touch, I use a family of surrogates: Eliza, Raggedy Andy and Mr. Bear. Through these powerful assistants, I can feel what is happening in your body and continue your healing. (This even works for your children and pets!)

I invite you to contact me with questions via the contact form, leave comments below or call 503-708-2911.

You may schedule an appointment here:     Schedule Appointment

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 Moyer, Christopher A. Affective massage therapy. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2008. PubMed #21589715
4 Stanley Keleman, Emotional Anatomy
5 Marion Rosen, Rosen Method Bodywork: Accessing the unconscious through touch
6 Joan Borysenko, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind; Thomas Hanna, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health; Louise Hay, Heal Your Body.
7 Richard Valasek is a senior Advanced Instructor of Ortho-Bionomy®
8Graded Motor Imagery Handbook by Prof. Lorimer Mosely
9The Rollercoaster of Professional Life, by David Butler.

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