First Contact

The Touch Research Institute promotes the laying on of healing hands

Infants ranging in age from new to 18 months spend much of the day napping in tiny cribs. Slightly older toddlers ramble to and fro with no real direction or purpose. The oldest kids -- those up to five years of age -- scamper around outside in a narrow playground fenced in by steel bars. At TRI Preschool toys and stuffed animals litter the grounds, crudely drawn portraits line the walls, and visitors run the danger of tripping over miniature chairs designed to accommodate extremely young behinds. By most outward appearances, this is simply a day-care center much like many others. But it is also a laboratory, and the 40 or so children who attend the school are its pint-size guinea pigs.

Not that it's a bad gig. John Alfonso, who is all of three months old, lounges patiently on a waterbed, contemplating an assortment of mirrors, toys, and other doodads that dangle from a small plastic swing placed over him. A few feet away, Marta Castello, a 73-year-old volunteer who exudes grandmotherliness, prepares to give John his daily rubdown. It will be a fifteen-minute feast of sensuous delight, lavished by Castello with baby oil and plenty of coos as she gently rubs John's round body with her palms and traces his tiny limbs with her fingers.

The massage session has implications beyond the grins it brings to John's face. Because the preschool, located a few blocks from Jackson Memorial Hospital, is run by the University of Miami School of Medicine's Touch Research Institute (TRI), "one of our main focuses is on touch and how it affects children," preschool director Ruth Rubin explains, as three children crawl over her and grab at her clothes. She doesn't seem to mind the distraction. "We do a lot of touching and hugging and holding and rubbing of backs."

Subsequent studies on the children will delve into such practical matters as the effects of touch on hyperactivity and feeding and sleeping patterns. (The findings in this last area may seem like a no-brainer: "They sleep much better [after a massage]," notes teacher Lucy Nue, as she watches John gurgle with pleasure while Castello works on his body. "This one will be going to sleep for two hours, easily.") But a far more ambitious objective is to accumulate an overwhelming body of evidence that dovetails with the institute's larger goal of demonstrating how touch -- even contact as seemingly inconsequential as a hug or a pat on the back -- affects physical and psychological well-being.

The concept is often lost on parents who enroll their children in the school. "They want us to do the flash card, better-baby program, where we can make musicians by age two and physicists by three," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry, and director of the Touch Research Institute. When Field explains to parents the school's goal of promoting health and cooperation over academic competitiveness, and how hugs and massages are a major part of the curriculum, "they're all shocked," she claims. She adds that the parents' first question is "What's that got to do with anything?"

Field says the institute will eventually answer that question and many more about how increased touching might eventually lead to a society where peace, unity, and happiness reign. With a staff of 28 students, volunteers, and massage therapists, and a faculty that includes researchers at UM, Florida International University, the University of Florida, Duke, Harvard, and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, it is the world's first and only research center devoted solely to touch. Field's goals for the four-year-old institute are threefold: to document the therapeutic benefits of touch, primarily in the form of massage therapy and its effect on a host of ailments; to explore the physiology of touch and find out precisely what happens in the body when the nerves in and under the skin are stimulated by physical contact; and finally, she says, "to demonstrate the positive effects of touching in general, so that ultimately touch can get back into society."

The United States is what anthropologists refer to as a "nontactile society." In lay jargon, that means we don't touch each other very much, especially when compared with the amount of touching -- whether incidental, friendly, or affectionate -- that goes on in other cultures. That's a cause of deep concern for Field who, sitting in her office six floors above the preschool, says more physical contact would go a long way toward addressing a host of fundamental public health and safety issues, ranging from diseases like diabetes, cancer, and AIDS to the abnormally high levels of stress, depression, and violence found in American society.

By her own admission, Field's objective of turning America into a nation of touchy-feely sorts will be difficult to achieve. Some gains on the tactile front were made in the Sixties, when the notions of open expression and free love led to experimental movements like encounter groups in which there were no boundaries to touch. However, Field asserts that the national taboo against touch has become strong in recent years. She believes the threat of civil lawsuits and criminal charges has reduced public arenas such as workplaces and schools to virtual no-touch zones.

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