Caring Touch and Infant Development: Neurological Aspects

Parents know instinctively that children thrive on caring touch: yet it’s not only a matter of good parenting, apparently caring touch is a necessary ingredient for the correct development of the individual at a later stage in life. According to a study conducted as far as the seventies by Dr J. W. Prescott, caring touch may have a vital function in the emotional/mental development of the infant. Prescott, then a neuropsychologist and researcher at the National Institute of Health in the US, reached the conclusion that there is a direct link between a correct stimulation of the somatosensory system in infants/children and the level of societal violence. Societies where infants are not exposed to caring touch, tend to become violent societies.

Prescott’s laboratory studies showed that a very low level of serotonin – the happy hormone – is found in laboratory animals kept in isolation and, likewise, in institutionalised, highly aggressive children. Prescott also found that deprivation of sensory stimulation leads to hypersensitivity to touch: ‘spikes’ (abnormally high voltage electric charges) are activated in the brain as a result of experiencing touch in an individual who has experienced lack of touch as an infant. This makes it unlikely that the individual will seek what he/she most needs, ironically, as touch is not experienced as soothing anymore. Prescott’s studies also show that animals that are deprived of touch become incapable of normal social interaction. Prescott concluded that sensory deprivation creates a predisposition towards violence: the brain seems to need sensory stimulation to develop correctly.

How does this work on the neurological level, exactly? There are two neurological circuits, one for ‘pain’ and one for ‘pleasure’, and they each inhibit the other: the individual cannot be wired on both circuits at once. It’s vital for an infant to receive adequate sensory stimulation because the brain is undeveloped at the early stages, and a lack of sensory stimulation will change the neurological structure permanently, inhibiting the ‘pleasure’ circuit; hence the individual will display highly aggressive behaviour, because the other circuit is simply undeveloped. The brain will be programmed to ‘survive’ in a mode of pain, violence and self-protection.

Prescott’s research findings show also that this early neurological structure can be reversed at the onset of puberty in societies that allow relative sexual freedom for young adults: sexual activity would apparently somehow partially re-wire the two circuits in a more balanced way.

From a psychological point of view, I would say that someone who will expect hostility, will constantly be in a defensive state, therefore not in a state of receptivity. The individual will need to re-programme the subconscious/conscious mind to regain the ability to receive affection and empathise. The fact that the brain may be wired to violence very early on, indicates that behavioural patterns may be difficult to change because they may be rooted in an early neurological ‘map’: when the two neurological pathways become imbalanced with prevalence of the aggressive pathway, the individual becomes ‘socially’ dysfunctional, thus preventing a sense of real connection to other individuals.

It can be argued that Western societies have lost the ability to culturally appreciate caring touch, e.i. have become ‘touchophobic’ but I would personally partially disagree on this point. Western societies have overall developed a system where respecting ‘boundaries’ is seen as very important: these are personal boundaries, legal boundaries, financial boundaries, and are aimed at creating a climate of fairness and justice for all. Boundaries are clearly defined and societies have a clear, overall fair way of defying what limits we all have to adhere to, to live well in a community: so only the person who is the account holder can withdraw money from their own account; there are clear legal limits; there is something called ‘personal space’, and it’s impolite to go beyond that boundary.

Sadly though there was no culture of ‘positive touch’ in the therapeutic and medical camp, but this is rapidly changing. It’s thanks to the ‘new age’ movement, that a redefinition of the notion of touch has taken place, with the introduction in the mainstream of therapies such as aromatherapy, Tui Na, shiatsu, Ayurveda, reflexology: touch therapies have thus become associated with emotional/mental well-being, an association that has been existing for a long time in many other cultures. This is something that is relatively recent in Western countries, and very old in the East. This is a welcome change, as perhaps at times the notion that boundaries are overall important, has obscured the fact that humans primarily need other humans to grow and develop, and caring touch is a fundamental need, not a luxury.

So, next time you hug your child, be aware that this may be more important than you think: it’s a necessary staple of good parenting. I think that intuitively all parents know that, but it’s useful to have sound scientific proof.


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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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