Written by Elisa (EJ) Sobo
Every semester, I teach a college course exploring the interrelationships between human culture and biology. Feedback loops connecting culturally-patterned behavior and body chemistry, such as in the stress response, provide a handy example of our bioculturality. So, among other topics, I have a well-developed unit in my course (and related textbook) on stress. But lately, I’ve been wondering if I might counterbalance that unit’s focus with something more positive, such as the relaxation response, or the benefits of positive touch.
While I have been thinking about touch as s topic for my students to investigate in theory, many in K-12 education have considered the practical applications of touch in the classroom. That is, they have been thinking about having students actually touch each other in controlled ways. Before I explain this, let me briefly review what scientists have discovered about pro-social touch.
Experts from James W. Prescott to Tiffany Field have long touted the benefits of positive touch for people living in a pro-touch cultural setting and those who receive it as part of a therapeutic regime, for instance in massage therapy. The benefits of positive touch include overall increases in pro-social behavior and immune system function and decreases in depression, pain, and the expression of violence and aggression. In anti-touch cultures, people have real trouble getting along peaceably. Infants who are touch deprived often fail to thrive and even can die. Scientists have begun to show that biochemicals associated with aggression and cooperation—and aggressive and cooperative behaviors themselves—go up or down in tandem with whether or not people are engaged in or exposed to pro-social touch.
The benefits of positive touch have been leveraged in recent attempts to introduce peer-to-peer massage routines into classroom settings. The A Child 2 Child project in the UK, led by Jean Barlow, claims positive results in which “good feelings help to keep students calm, positive, focused and motivated.” Aware of the need for statistical proof of such claims, The Peer Massage Project, also in the UK, commissioned Gary Brown to undertake an outcomes evaluation; he documented improvements related to behavior, attitude, learning, calmness, and memory recall. The Massage in Schools Programme, founded by Mia Elmsater and Sylvie Hetu of Canada, has branches worldwide. As noted on their US division’s Website, which has links to a number of study write-ups, outcomes research on school-based massage is just beginning. But front-line testimonials are overwhelmingly positive.
Late last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Thea Blair, a US-based peer massage proponent. Her set-to-song routines include a back and neck massage in which students sing or listen to a peaceful song about nature, and a hand massage based on a calmly amusing story that details a fisherman’s workday. Only students who want to participate do so. Asking permission marks the beginning and giving thanks marks the end of each routine.
As innocuous as all this sounds, and despite the above-mentioned evidence, Ms. Blair has encountered some opposition. Resistance reflects widespread misunderstandings about touch and related anxieties that fuel, in some schools, ‘no touch’ ordinances. A key problem is that mainstream US culture positions touch as either inherently aggressive or intrinsically sexual—when of course there are many more dimensions to touch, including its nurturance and health-giving functions.
Although Ms. Blair designed her massage routines for a younger set, a group of students taking my biocultural course gave peer massages a try last semester during an extracurricular guest lecture that Ms. Blair gave to the class. As part of the presentation, Ms. Blair demonstrated some techniques on me, inviting students to find partners and follow along. Both she and I made it clear from the start that active participation—touching or being touched—was neither expected nor mandatory.
Despite this, exactly three-quarters of the class opted in for the first routine. By the end of the session, everyone was in on the act. Even the two students who missed class that day participated at a distance: some peers who attended treated them to massages and summarized Ms. Blair’s talk for them spontaneously before our next class meeting. Later, students urged me to include a message routine as part of the final exam. Such enthusiasm for peer message in practice can be read as one measure of success.
Other measures include quantified self-reports on well-being. Before beginning, Ms. Blair asked students to self-rate their sense of well being on a scale of one to ten. Twice during the lesson she asked them to reevaluate. Twice, increases were noted. Students said they felt calmer. At one point, a student sitting on the sidelines observed that his own sense of well being improved along with the participating students’. “Why do you think that is?” Ms. Blair asked. The mood of the room now simply felt good to him; even as a non-participant, he’d sensed a change in other peoples’ feelings and that, in turn, relaxed him.
Had we conducted a systematic evaluation or, better yet, a large scale, longitudinal, case-control study, including clinically and socially relevant measures, who knows what might have been documented. We could have measured changes in stress levels and interpersonal violence rates; we might have explored dose-response issues, sustainability, and so forth. We might have collected data that supported a hypothesis regarding the value of pro-social touch—or that disproved it.
In reality, the gold standard study on peer massage has not yet been done. Moreover, the class that I described was not K-12. Nonetheless, all indications strongly suggest that we would be wise to set aside our culturally driven fear of touch so that we might give peer massage a real chance to prove itself. School program options should be elected—or rejected—based on evidence, not emotion.
Elisa (EJ) Sobo is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. She is on the editorial boards of Anthropology & Medicine, Medical Anthropology, and Medical Anthropology Quarterly. She has served as an elected member of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s executive board and as co-chair of the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Public Policy.
Dr. Sobo has written numerous peer-reviewed journal articles as well having authored, co-authored, and co-edited twelve books on various topics. Her latest books are Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (2013), The Cultural Context of Health, Illness, and Medicine (2010), and Culture and Meaning in Health Services Research (2009).
Dr. Sobo’s current projects include a study exploring cultural models of child development as applied in classroom teaching, particularly in the Waldorf or Steiner education system.