Why Does Touch Feel Good?

This is an extremely complex and interesting question.  The answer is even more complex.

As mammals, and especially as primates, our bodies and minds have evolved to desire, seek and receive comforting touch. At every stage of our development as individuals, and as part of a community, it is inarguably healthy for our bodies and minds. It is, in fact, integral to our very survival.

I think that, in order for touch to feel good, it must meet two criteria:

  • The person being touched is honestly receptive, in the positive sense, to that touch; and
  • The person providing the touch has the intent to, on some level, provide “comfort” to the person they are touching.  (This can have different connotations for different people in different situations).

“Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start…”

Engaging in comforting touch is something that is a primal driving force for human beings and primates, in addition to all mammals, and (surprisingly) avians. For mammals, it begins in the womb, as the first sensory neural network develops. This neural network then continues as the basis for the development of the central nervous system. This system, of course, is key to experiencing touch, as we can’t feel what we are anatomically and physiologically incapable of feeling. This is shown in a study of warm, comforting touch between married couples [2]. We require comforting touch from the moment of birth, through the entirety of our lives, and even up to the moment of death. Whether we receive that touch or not has a great impact on our overall well-being.

A great deal of research has determined that our bodies and minds require such touch in order to function properly. However, the variables in development regarding neurotransmitter levels and cultural parameters involving touch are still being studied in depth. The neurotransmitter/hormone oxytocin has been dubbed both the “love hormone” and the “cuddle hormone”, because it becomes highly expressed in the brain during comforting and/or erotic touch. Endorphins, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter/hormone is also highly present during physical interactions that make us psychologically or physically comforted or “attended to.” [3]

The differing parameters of sensory sensitivity levels have been accurately and somewhat humorously depicted in the following educational pictogram of the sensory “homunculus”:

Somatic Sensory Complex ("Why Does Touch Feel Good?")

(Image credit: www.mhhe.com)

The human sensory net‘s “input parameters” are heavily loaded in favor of areas specifically developed and utilized in various stages of life, which translates functionally into sensory systems required for learning, and ultimately, survival.


What specific examples can be found in different stages of life?

As a fetus:

– touch of skin into the amniotic fluid, sac, womb, and surrounding/enveloping anatomy/physiology, to determine spatial parameters, due to the developmental nature of the integumentary (skin) system, in primary relation to the development of the central nervous system.

“From early days,
Beginning not long after that first time,
In which, a Babe, by intercourse of touch,
I held mute dialogues with my Mother’s heart
I have endeavour’d to display the means
Whereby this infant sensibility,
Great birthright of our Being, was in me
Augmented and sustain’d”
– William Wordsworth
The Prelude, 1850, II, 1. 265-272


As a newborn:

  • Touch and smell, predominantly, of the mother (or whatever caretaker is most present)
  • Rooting mechanisms in physiological/psychological reaction and behavior, in order to find FOOD
  • Regulation of heat/cold independent of the mother

If any of these needs are not met, discomfort will result, and subsequent developmental, psychological, and behavioral complications will occur.


Through early life, ages 1-12:

Comforting touch is absolutely required for positive and functional development of the body and mind of the toddler, through to the adolescent.  Positive, comforting touch from a parent or primary caregiver forms sensory feedback associations in the body and mind that set the course for positive inter-relational associations in their future, including dating, mating, sex, and parenthood.  The effect of early comforting touch has been shown to help with early learning of physical comforting of friends, bonding of friends, development of communication with known or potential friends, and simple nonverbal, interpersonal communication (via facial expression and “body language”).


Early adulthood: ages 13-21:

At this stage, the young adult will have developed physical, psychological, and social awareness in relation to experiences gleaned from earlier stages of life. We are all works in progress. We take what we intuitively feel, then we take a chance via social experience, and then we process what happens. We either learn from these experiences or progress our awareness and forthrightness, or we become stuck in conceptual and social feedback loops – which can eventually “jump the fence” and progress anyways. Or not. These years are most often our first stages of sexual experience.  If touch has not been recorded in our bodies and minds as “good” at this point, there’s trouble for the person. It can be changed, in one’s psyche, but the body is a bit harder to reprogram. Patience, understanding, and a willingness to affect change within oneself are paramount. It sounds trivial and easy, but it’s not.


Mature adulthood: ages 22-? (The next boundary in age is usually “senior”, age 60-70+, but it is variable):

These are the years when body awareness, habits, and customs reach their fruition through repetition.  We are hopefully “comfortable in our own skin”, physically, psychologically, and socially.  We not only rely on the ingrained senses of self and familiar patterns of interaction with others in order to survive and mature, but we also, as parents, are in the position to set the stage for our children in the same stages we ourselves have gone through. In fact, these experiences are so ingrained, not only in action and thought; they have made their way into common parlance of everyday experiences. Consider the phrases, “Rubbing people the wrong way,” “Having a prickly or abrasive personality, or alternately, a soft touch, or magic touch,” “Someone having to be ‘handled with kid gloves,’” “Someone being touchy, or thick/thin-skinned,” “Someone being ‘out of touch’ or ‘having lost their grip.’”  Even a deeply “touching” experience is described also as “poignant (Middle English directly from Old French “poindre,” by way of Latin “pungere,” meaning to prick or touch). Metaphor for touch in language is deeply ingrained in us. Why? Because language is one of our main ways to communicate our experiences as a person.


Which also leads to the obvious: SEX and the human experience.

“Sex has been defined as, ‘the harmony of two souls and the contact of two epidermes.’ This elegantly emphasizes a basic truth: the massive involvement of the skin in sexual congress. The truth is that, in no other relationship is the skin so totally involved as in sexual intercourse. Sex, indeed, has been called the highest form of touch. In the profoundest sense, touch is the true language of sex.” [4]

  “For touch,
Touch, by the holy powers of the Gods!
Is the sense of the body; whether something makes its way in
Or when a thing, which in the body had birth,
Hurts it, or gives pleasure issuing forth
To perform the generative deeds of Venus.”
-Lucretius (c. 96 B.C-c. 53 B.C)
De Rerum Natura, II, 434

If sexual intercourse did not feel as compelling and stunningly good as it does (or can), we would have long ago become extinct.


*And in our final years, the contacts we have grown to cherish and need from ourselves and all our family and communities, in our deepest being –  physical, psychological, and social, will fade, even as the memory of its pleasures will be a secret fire in the deep recesses of the mind.

[1] Touching: The Significance of the Human Skin, Ashley Montagu, 1986

[2] Page on lww.com “Influence of a “Warm Touch” Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol”

[3] Behavioural function and neurobiological mechanisms

[4] Touching, pg.204


What is the difference between kneading, rolling, percussion, and vibration?

All the different useful procedures of massage can be classified under eight main categories.

Passive Touch is passive (still). It consists of lightly touching the body with one or more fingers, the whole hand or both hands. This technique is used in Swedish massage, Myofascial Release and Craniosacral therapy, to name a few. Physiological effects include elevation of temperature via heat from the hand, and sensory influence on the cutaneous nerves, often associated with comfort.

Simple touch can be remarkably effective in relieving hypersensitivities, especially in the head and joints. Nervous irritability can be quieted sometimes by simple touch of the hand on the head.

Compression consists of making light or heavy pressure with the whole hand or one or more fingers. This is used in manual deactivation of a myofascial trigger point or to temporarily numb an irritated nerve such as in trigeminal neuralgia or sciatica. When administered correctly, the effect of compression is to diminish swelling and circulatory congestion, and to slightly numb the nerves pressed upon.

Stroking is simply light touch combined with motion. The tips of two to five fingers or the entire palmar surface of one or both hands are moved slowly and gently over the skin with minimal contact at a rate of 1-2 inches per second in the direction of arterial (heart-outward) flow only.

There are many different techniques and reasons for stroking, both direct and reflex. The main effect of stroking is a decided sedative effect. However, very light stroking may produce a very powerful reflex effect, like a tickle or stimulant to spinal nerve roots. This can be very useful to alleviate sleeplessness or hypersensitivity such as a nervous headache (very useful with upset babies and children). Neuralgic pain and numbness may also be somewhat abated with this technique. It can be used abdominally to reflexively stimulate digestion: think of how you gently rub your stomach when you have overeaten or have indigestion.

Friction is where the whole or part of the hand is moved steadily over the surface of the skin following venous flow (toward the heart) with a varying but significant degree of pressure according to the “thickness” of the area being worked on. There are many different techniques for friction depending on the influence you want on the tissue. As a rule, some lubricant such as oil, lotion or powder should be utilized to avoid overstimulation, abrasion and irritation of the skin.

The principal objective of friction is to encourage better circulation, thus emptying the veins and lymphatic spaces and channels of waste matter and painful chemicals. It is probably the most valuable of the various massage procedures.

Swedish massage, Cross-Fiber massage and Active Release Technique use deep friction to break up scar tissue in different structures such as skin, muscle, tendon or ligament. Manual Lymphatic Drainage uses very light friction to clear swelling and congestion from joints and lymphatic outlets.

Friction and kneading are probably the most widely used massage techniques worldwide.

Kneading is probably the best known massage procedure, as familiar as kneading dough. It essentially consists of alternating and intermittent compression and squeezing of the tissue, either by grasping it or compressing it against underlying bony surfaces. Kneading differs from friction in that the skin is held in firm contact with the surface of the hand.

Kneading techniques can either be superficial or deep, and can be further delineated by specific techniques. These include superficial/deep kneading (like a baker kneads dough), skin rolling, wringing, and palm/fist/finger kneading, to name a few. Swedish massage and Deep Tissue Massage utilize these heavily. The main goal of kneading is to stimulate all the vital activities of the body part being worked on, including the nerves, blood vessels, glands and cellular exchanges of the tissue. Deep kneading assists muscles to increase in size and function through better circulatory exchange, and assists in the removal of painful chemicals and connective tissue adhesion. Superficial kneading is especially indicated for swelling and any other condition where the skin and superficial circulatory channels need to be more active.

Vibration consists of fine vibratory or shaking movements from the therapist’s hands to the area worked on. This can be subdivided into lateral, knuckle, superficial, deep, shaking and digital vibration, depending on how the therapist uses his or her hands to address the patient’s needs.

Vibration primarily stimulates. It can cause muscle contraction, a pleasant tingling sensation due to stimulation of sensory nerves, and increased blood flow and subsequent temperature rise of the region. It is valuable in cases of paralysis, neuralgia or neurological weakness or fatigue, where stimulation of the area’s function is needed. I have found it to be especially helpful in cases where the patient is unable to relax a muscle or has trouble with neurologic dysfunction and spasm (such as with Cerebral Palsy).

Percussion consists of blows to the tissue using the hands or fingers with varying degrees of technique and force. The movement is always elastic and from the wrist, which penetrates deeply without bruising superficial structures. As a rule, the hand should strike the body transversely across the muscle’s fibers. Different techniques include tapping strike w/ finger’s ends, spatting (strike w/ fingertips), clapping (strike w/ whole palm), hacking (strike w/ pinky side of hand) and beating (strike with palmar side of a closed fist).

Percussion is a powerful stimulant for both the skin and underlying structures. A short, light application produces a momentary spasm, and thus blanching, of the superficial vessels. Strong percussion dilates the vessels a great deal, as evidenced by the reddening which follows. If very strong, percussion can produce nerve paralysis, as any martial artist knows. Other effects include stimulation of the organs through reflex centers and the spinal cord, and assisting with dislodging mucus congestion in the lungs.

Joint Movement obviously consists of the therapist moving the patient’s joint through a range of motion. This can be combined with other techniques such as deep friction (as in Active Release technique) or touch (as in Myofascial Release and Unwinding). It may be either passive (no effort from the patient) or resistive (as in Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, Lewit technique, etc.). Joint Movement strongly affects fluid flow through both the joint and the joint’s connective and adjacent structures. It is useful in cases where there is stiffness, pain, swelling and hyperstimulation. Think of how you shake your hand when it feels tired or stiff.

All this being said, reading this or any other blog does not make one a massage therapist. If you want to truly learn these techniques, whether to give a better backrub or to become a licensed therapist, check out good schools nearby and take an appropriate class.  The internet and certifying massage school associations, such as AMTA (American Massage Therapy Association), can help with this. The skills gained will benefit you and your loved ones throughout your lives.

There are many wonderful books about massage, but my favorite one on basic technique is “Art of Massage” (John Harvey Kellogg, MD, reprint 1975 by Health Research, CA), which was our main textbook in 1988. Most of the information on our Medical Board exam for licensure was taken from this text.