First Contact

The Touch Research Institute promotes the laying on of healing hands

And she will lecture about chemicals the body produces -- in particular serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation (the antidepressant drug Prozac is designed to boost levels of the substance), and cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Cortisol, she says, destroys body tissue and wreaks havoc on the immune system. Americans, because of their fast-paced lifestyles, carry around way too much of it in their blood, she adds. The institute's studies have shown that cortisol levels, as measured in subjects' saliva and urine samples, decrease dramatically after a massage, while serotonin, measured in the urine, is increased.

Field's interest in touch traces back to 1975, when she was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts performing research on high-risk infants. As it happens, Field's daughter was born prematurely while she was conducting the research. "She was one month premature," Field notes, "but some other kids were three and four months premature, and they ended up staying in the hospital for a long time just to gain weight, so the basic thing was to find something to help them gain weight."

The prevailing medical wisdom at the time was that such babies shouldn't be touched at all, for fear of disturbing their fragile nervous systems. "That [belief] was based on invasive-procedure data," she says, commenting on the endless tubes and needles to which such sick infants are subjected. "What they didn't do is look at tender, loving touch."

In the study Field had the preemies suck on soft nipples while they were being tube-fed, and found that they gained weight faster. That led to a leap in logic: If stimulating the mouth helped, working the whole body might be even more effective.

A subsequent study that lead to TRI's founding was published eleven years later in the medical journal Pediatrics. Field (who was by then an assistant professor at UM), Schanberg, and other researchers used massage therapy on premature infants at Jackson. After fifteen minutes of massage performed three times daily, the 57 babies, on average, gained 47 percent more weight and went home six days earlier than babies who weren't massaged, for a savings of $3000 (which translates to $10,000 in today's dollars).

Among the obstacles the researchers faced were those imposed by physicians tending to the preemies. Unmoved by Field's findings and adhering to the view that their patients should not be touched, doctors were concerned that she and Schanberg would kill the frail patients. "We had to spend hours talking them into letting us do it," Schanberg recalls. "We had to overcome the world."

That study found its way to James Burke, then the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the New Jersey-based company that makes baby products such as powders and lotions. "I had long believed that the key to the success of Johnson's baby toiletries was that it made it easier for mothers to touch their children and to take care of them in a physical way," says Burke, who retired as the head of Johnson & Johnson in 1989 and is now the chairman of Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "I further believed that it brought great physical benefits not only to the child but to the mother, and that this whole business of touch was not well enough understood."

In 1990 Field made a trip to Johnson & Johnson's headquarters to discuss her findings. "I showed them slides of the preemie research, and Jim Burke said, 'I think we'd have less war and less disease if we had more touch in our culture,'" Field remembers. After Burke twisted the arms of a few Johnson & Johnson executives, the company provided $250,000 in seed money to found TRI in 1992.

Most of the institute's 55 studies, some of which are ongoing, center around demonstrating the medical benefits of massage therapy. Among the findings so far: Premature babies gain weight faster; young psychiatric patients sleep better and are less depressed; immune systems in HIV-infected adults are enhanced; and stressed workers have less anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Massage is used, Field explains, because the firm pressure applied with Swedish-type massage, in which muscles are vigorously kneaded, provides the necessary stimulation to those nerve receptors in the skin. She leans across a table and presses an interviewer's forearm to make the point. "In order for all of the changes to occur that we're showing, like growth, like reduction in [the stress hormone] cortisol, enhancement of the immune system, changes in brain waves [associated with parasympathetic state], that only happens when there's pressure," she says with a prod.

Although some of the institute's studies and findings seem ridiculously self-evident -- one currently under way is expected to show that couples who massage each other before and after sex will have lower levels of performance anxiety and increased feelings of physical intimacy -- Field says documentation is necessary before massage is accepted by the medical establishment as a viable therapy.

A reasonable question might be, If touch is so important, why can't people just get what they need at home? What's the added value of occasional touching at work or school? "It shouldn't be occasional," Field responds. "You need a heavy dose of hugs, and that's what I'm saying. You need to have those pressure receptors stimulated." Field grasps her forearm and starts rubbing it. "The neurotransmitters in the brain need touch," she continues. "If you can't boost your serotonin with touch, you gotta go out and take Prozac. It's as simple as that."

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