On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.
It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.
What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.
When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.
These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.
A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.
What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially. In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.
One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.