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 interpersonal “feeling better” whether by massage, validation, the touch of a friend, good parenting, the support of family or a therapy session is partly about empathy in human relationship.

Neuroscience of Relationship

How empathic you are in human relationships varies. It depends on your social training, brain wiring, preference, personal receptivity, gender, age, the senses and probably some things beyond the senses (like electrical field signals). When everything works, they trigger the release of beneficial neurotransmitters,1 nervous system messengers necessary for a sense of security, connection, calming, social bonding, even pain relief. They keep your wiring humming. You have heard about many of them–dopamine, serotonin, opioids, oxytocin, endorphins. 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, the mechanics of joint movement, skin rolling, gliding strokes or deep tissue? It’s more. Every time I touch you, I am influencing your nervous system.

Your brain registers a different experience for light touch, deep pressure, vibration, pain, heat and changes in movement around a joint. Even the speed of a stroke is important, 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 your heart.

yay-9877414olderwoman pleasant shoulderMassage and Emotions

What about improved mood? Christopher Moyer notes “these (massage) effects on anxiety and depression are the most well-established effects in the MT research literature”4 and others note that massage is clearly beneficial for emotional relief. Some researchers believe that much of massage benefits–improved sleep, pain relief, lowered blood pressure, relaxation, and improved immune response–are independent of the particular technique a massage therapist uses, and are more related to how we respond physically and emotionally to touch in human relationship.5 Empathy in massage is not studied as deeply as neurotransmitters and the mechanical response to touch. Although perhaps it needs to be.

Although some effects of massage are local–like improved circulation and warmth–we as massage practitioners don’t make a muscle relax, no matter how much pressure we apply. It’s your nervous system that sends the signal to the muscle to relax.  Your nervous system is your “friend with benefits.”

canstockphoto7434260How does bodywork bring relief?

You may have guessed it: neurotransmitters! Massage and bodyworkers 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. When we touch someone, we touch their skin, yes, but the nerve transmission of our touch affects the emotional state in a cascade of events, 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 open awareness, we touch you deeply in who you are.8 You feel acknowledged. Although physically, we activate the reflex response of the nervous system, psychologically we give you recognition and validation through touch.

DSC02260Richard Valasek’s9 Unphased Ortho-Bionomy® goes even further. He teaches that the most important healing benefit we can provide is the art of our focused presence. Again, it’s not necessarily the technique, or the school that someone trained in. When various methods of bodywork are compared, the difference in outcome usually is due to qualities of the therapists.

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

yay-9863542Mirror neurons in our brains get activated when we observe someone’s behavior. This is called resonance, and is essential for children’s development and learning. It is hard-wired in humans from infancy. The feelings that are evoked are called empathy. Touch is one of the social and neurological contributors to empathy.12

In a therapeutic context, your massage therapist activates an empathic resonance in relationship to you. Or not. There’s neuroscience behind a good fit with your massage therapist, and it is part of the reason you want to go back.

When I am in empathic rapport with you, I notice when you tighten up from thoughts and feelings. I may feel a small area that doesn’t move, or one that bunches up when you talk about that person who has been “a pain in the neck”. In Ortho-Bionomy®, I was also taught to attend to my own sensations, thoughts and feelings, as a form of feedback for what is happening with you.

DSC02261I give you feedback so you can increase your self-awareness, process your feelings, change your exercise routine, or breathe through the tense spots in your body and life. I support you in your efforts to get well, on all levels of your life, and give you exercises to keep improving.

It’s all part of the package when you schedule a session for Ortho-Bionomy® with Body-Mind Healing.

You may contact me with questions via the contact form or schedule an appointment from the upper right corner of this page. Or call 503-708-2911.

Resources and References:

Leslie Michel, MD & Rodney Shackelford, DO, Ph.D., The Molecular Biology of Compassion
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®
10 Graded Motor Imagery Handbook by Prof. Lorimer Mosely
11 The 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.

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