Hands On Research: The Science of Touch
Article by Dacher Keltner (2010)
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What is the Science?

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that there is a “science of touch.” In studying touch and its benefits, Keltner has observed that people can not “only identify love, gratitude, and compassion from touches” but that humans can “differentiate between those kinds of touch, something people haven’t done as well in studies of facial and vocal communication.”

Recent studies have shown that touch is not only humanity’s “primary language of compassion,” but that touch may yield measurable emotional and physical health benefits as well. The science of touch is even being integrated into modern medicine. For example, studies have shown that preterm newborns who received touch therapy gained “47 percent more weight,” while other research has concluded that touch can be a key factor in comforting patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

“In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.” – Dacher Keltner

What is the Theology?

In the Christian tradition, touch, compassion, healing, and love often intersect. In the Old Testament, touch is a fundamental concern of the Law and holiness (Lev. 6:27, 7:19-21). The ministry of Jesus is full of moments in which, filled with compassion, Christ brings healing and restoration to the needy through the means of physical touch (Matt. 20:34; Mark 5:27; Luke 6:19). Today, as churches continue to show compassion and love through the imposition of ashes, anointing with oil, passing the peace, foot washing, and the laying of hands in prayer, they might benefit from reflection on modern scientific understanding behind these important spiritual practices.

What to Consider

  • What are some best practices to safeguard your pastoral practice of touch in a way that is culturally and contextually appropriate?
  • How might developing your own spirituality of touch inform your ability to show compassion and love? How might the scientific benefits of touch shape your pastoral identity?
  • How can you show compassion and love to those who do not prefer or feel comfortable with physical touch? How can such persons still participate in touch-based church practices?
  • Does your church have familiar rituals or practices (liturgical or otherwise) that involve touch? How do you see the science of touch at work in those practices?

How to go Deeper

  • Preach on the theme of touch in Jesus’ ministry and demonstrate how scientific research complements the testimony of Scripture.
  • Be intentional about getting to know your community and its members to discern how comfortable they are with touch. Stay informed on the issues of touch and abuse in church contexts so that you can practice touch wisely and responsibly.
  • Encourage your community to see their church practices involving touch as opportunities to show love and compassion.  

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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By | 2017-04-25T14:02:39+00:00 April 14th, 2017|Love, Research|9 Comments

About the Author:

Michael Wiltshire serves as an assistant pastor at Rose City Church in Pasadena, CA. He holds an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016) and a B.S. from Cornerstone University, double majoring in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he co-led the Fuller Faith and Science student group and worked in residential community. Michael is passionate about pastoral care, and is dedicated to exploring how preaching, practical theology, and organizational systems can empower churches to care well. A Michigander at heart, Michael enjoys cloudy weather and the NBA.

9 Comments

  1. aidenkang April 16, 2017 at 2:54 am

    “But after years spent immersed in the science of touch, I can tell you that they are far more profound than we usually realize: They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion” – Could this in any way be related to the imago Dei – God forming us with His own “hands” out of the dust of the ground rather than creating us just with the power of His word?

  2. aidenkang April 16, 2017 at 3:01 am

    “In a recent study out of my lab, published in the journal Emotion we found that, in general, NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games” – This is really intriguing.

  3. aidenkang April 16, 2017 at 3:03 am

    “To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo – Good quote.

  4. Weabz May 5, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    Hey it’s one of my top two “Love Languages”.

  5. matt@ncstudycenter.org May 17, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    I have spent a lot of time with folks with I/DD disabilities and I can attest that this is true for many of them: touch is their primary language and means of showing affection and gratitude

  6. Thomas June 19, 2017 at 2:15 am

    A great topic that is unfortunately underestimated in so many places of worship.

  7. marymact@gmail.com August 9, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    This is something my campus ministry team has talked about a little bit– important topic.

  8. Reed Metcalf September 12, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    I think this is a great example of science offering a welcome (or maybe not for us introverts!) corrective to church praxis. With many manifestations of Western Christianity being so individualistic and rationalistic–instead of communal and emotionally-aware–we need to be reminded of the ways we can show each other care and love. I think this fits right in line with the oft-repeated tropes in churches that “love is an action;” here is a concrete way to actualize love and create flourishing for ourselves and others (if done in an appropriate way, of course!)!

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