Neuroscience of Touch via Aline Newton

Aline Newton, a Rolfer with many publications to her credit, has written the best post I’ve seen on the neuroscience of touch. Her main points, with my interpretation:

  1. Massage therapists and bodyworkers have long been aware of the power of touch to benefit our clients.
  2. Functional MRI’s show that touch influences mood, sensations, movements, thinking and learning capacities.
  3. The brain may have different responses to different kinds of touch, duration and depth, and more research is needed here. It varies by the client’s experience, and is influenced by learning.
  4. There are increased responses in the motor areas of the brain to touch, not just the sensory areas.
  5. Mindfulness in movement, such as with mindful yoga, Tai Chi, or other exercise influences broader areas of the brain than routine exercise where we do not pay attention to sensations.
  6. Touch reduces anxiety and reduces activation of the alarm processing of the limbic system.
  7. Touch influences even the basal ganglia. This may have significance in bodywork treatments of movement disorders such as Parkinson’s.

Thank you, Aline!

The Massage Therapy Body of Knowledge (MTBOK)¹ mentions the neuroscience of touch. Beneficial effects of massage on anxiety and depression are not normally taught in massage schools in the form of the neuroscience of touch therapies, but rather as the well-recognized beneficial effects of massage therapy on emotional states. However, when we touch the skin, we are touching sense receptors in the skin and in deeper layers of tissue that communicate directly to the brain.

Resonance, empathy, and attunement in relation to our clients are experienced frequently by both massage therapists and clients. They may be responsible for a good part of the healing benefits experienced from massage and other touch therapies, while it is various schools of technique that usually get the credit. Whether there is a good fit between practitioner and client has nothing to do with what school was attended. Resonance and empathy are usually taught under the heading of boundaries in a therapeutic relationship. With the dawn of a new era of research, we might learn that interoception, the body awareness of emotional states and how they are affected by touch, along with the social relationship between client and practitioner are about the neuroscience of touch rather than some more exotic attribute.2, 3, 4

However, I must admit, before I took the Functional Neurology for Bodyworkers class, and got bit by the research bug, neuroscience was an exotic mystery that made my head swim. It was easier to hope for a good fit, and believe in the magic that happens with good communication, and meeting client’s needs for relaxation and pain relief. 🙂 Now I have a deeper understanding of the neuroscience of touch in a therapeutic context.

1 MTBOK Taskforce. Massage Therapy Body of Knowledge. 2010: May 15.
2 Carr L, et al. Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans . Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 100, 5497–5502. 2003.
3 Critchley H. Neural mechanisms of autonomic, affective and cognitive integration. Journal of Comparative Neurology. 2005;493:154-66
4 Critchley, HD. Psychophysiology of neural, cognitive and affective integration: fMRI and autonomic indicants Int J Psychophysiol. 2009 August; 73(2): 88–94.