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Changing the World with Touch

From the beginning of my career 30 years ago, I have loved touching human skin. Like many of my fellow-professionals, I have worked in many full-service salon environments where skin care was, in fact, not the main event. Generally, these salons focused on hair care, as many do today. Nail care has more recently emerged as a huge and wildly creative industry, but skin has and will always be my passion.

Why, exactly? The answer is simple: skin is alive. With all due respect to my sister tribes, hair and nails are not. When hair care product manufacturers discuss the "health" of the hair, they misspeak, since hair is dead matter. Something dead, by definition, cannot have any degree of health, which is a living state. What they are in fact discussing is the condition of the hair as dead organic matter which once was living, like wood, or leather. Rough handling, harsh chemicals, etc. will damage and distress hair, leather, and wood equally, but it's not a matter of actual "health."
The same is true of the nail, at least the portion of the nail which is filed, clipped, "enhanced" with various polymer or gel coatings, and enameled with colored lacquer. True, the cuticle and the nail-bed beneath this surface are very much alive, as is the root-bulb of the hair strand – because these tissues are connected to the skin. However, the "work surface" of the nail is as dead as the moon. Think about it—we cut our hair and nails all the time. And it doesn't hurt, because these are not living substances. They only time a haircut, manicure, or pedicure will hurt is when you cut too close and hit living skin.
If you've read this magazine before, you've no doubt seen the cross-section of the dermis. While it's essential to understand the physical mechanics, what is most electrifying to me about the skin is that it's hot-wired to the brain, and this is what makes it utterly unlike hair or nails. This is why I have devoted my professional life to skin.
For decades now, touch-deprivation has been conclusively demonstrated to cause aberrant behaviors in primates in clinical studies, ranging from depression to violence. The most famous of these are the studies conducted by an American psychiatrist, Dr. Harry Harlow, in the late 1950s. Harlow's study of attachment theory established that infant rhesus monkeys preferred tactile comfort (in the form of a soft, padded, cloth "mother" mannequin) to food, when forced to choose between the two.
In more anecdotal evidence, we see the same to be true of fellow human-beings. The crisis: our industrialized society, we now are all touch-deprived. The old fabric of traditional community is gone, eradicated in the past century by technology, war, globalization, and progress. There is less accepted social touch available. Co-workers (and we are a nation of workers) can't touch each other without fearing a lawsuit. The same of teachers and students—even the purest-intentioned hug can be fodder for scandal.
In their fascinating book, "A General Theory of Love" (Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, Richard Lannon, M.D. ; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.; Copyright © 2000, ISBN: 0-375-50389-7) , three clinical psychiatrists discuss the importance of what they call "limbic connectedness", a state of social and personal function which relies highly upon being touched in a caring way early in life, and continuously throughout life. The authors argue that without limbic nurturing, which is highly tactile but also includes other forms of non-verbal communication (i.e., tone of voice and facial expression among caregivers), the human brain fails to develop fully, in purely physiological terms. In other words, not being touched "well" – the worst-case scenarios being neglect and abuse — results in literal brain damage.
They refer to the limbic system, a comparatively new system within the human brain. The limbic system is centered in the neocortex (the "new" brain), and is present only in mammals. It is the opposite of the primitive though essential "reptile" brain. The reptile brain is all function, but no compassion.
The reptile brain sends the automatic electrical signals to our internal organs to keep pumping, tells our pupils to widen in the dark to permit us to see without stumbling, and so on. The reptile brain tells us to feed ourselves, in order to survive—but does not tell us to feed our own children, much less someone else's. For instance, the lizard, turtle, or crocodile mother lays her eggs, then waggles off to leave them to hatch and fend for themselves, with distinctly un-mammalian laissez-faire. The reptile brain tells us to fight when we feel threatened, while the limbic system may allow us to resist the urge toward violence for a higher good. It might be said that the reptile brain tells the heart to keep beating; the limbic system gives the heart a reason to keep beating, and that reason is love.
As a culture, we are losing our limbic connectedness, and this is dangerous, since living without connection means the reptile brain rules again. We are living in the age of the "air-kiss"—is it any wonder we yearn for the much-maligned "group hugs"?
So, whoever said skin care isn't brain-surgery was wrong! Touch in fact alters the brain, in measurable chemical and mechanical terms, from the first hours of infancy, through the storms of puberty, to the challenges of adulthood, to the fragile poignancy of our old age. Without frequent, caring touch, we sicken, shrivel, and die. With classic British understatement, this tendency among orphaned infants and children raised in institutions used to be described as "failure to thirve." None of us can thrive—can truly flower—without feeling our warm, living skin against someone else's every day, ideally many times a day, even if just for a friendly instant. With apologies to Dr. Freud, experts now concur that touching is not inherently erotic—erotic touching is simply one specific flavor of touch. Our present culture hypersexualizes touch, but does not really understand its vitality, necessity, and wonder.
In a 2002 study entitled "Nurture, Nature and Caring: We Are Not Prisoners of Our Genes" by Riane Eisler and Daniel S. Levine ( from Center for Partnership Studies and University of Texas at Arlington, respectively), identify a virtual neural war being waged inside the human brain. The two camps: the brutal "fight or flight" responses, ruled by the reptile brain; the "tend and befriend" behaviors, the bonding, caring, limbic override the baseline survival instinct .
This neurochemistry study discussed how experiences—like being touched or not being touched—cause the brain to discharge differing chemicals. We all know about the endorphins which are released when the body experiences pain, whether during a strenuous workout or during childbirth; these naturally produced neuro-opiates allow us to endure suffering in order to persist as a species.
Other brain chemicals, however, are more important to the language of touch. Primary among these is the neuropeptide oxytocin, which is linked strongly to mammalian family care-giving. Animal studies link oxytocin with mothering specifically, i.e. triggering uterine contractions to facilitate birth, the triggering of lactation, and what scientists call "pup-recognition and retrieval"— a.k.a., remembering to pick your kids up at the mall after the movie. In another clash of the titans, oxytocin goes up against cortisol, the stress-hormone we produce when in a peak panic-state, and the source of the so-called "cold sweat" (versus the simply thermoregulating sweat we achieve when jogging). Cortisol makes us jittery, jumpy, and nasty. Oxytocin blisses us out.
Eisler and Levine make a persuasive case for the blueprint of the brain being set very early in life, formed in part by genetics and in part by our first experiences, including tactile experiences (our contact with mother's skin being a key). The authors go on to explain that billions of repetitions in the brain—specific stimuli followed by the same response—virtually hard-wire our synapses to perform a certain way. We form habits, and these may seem forever fixed. That is, unless we decide to change.
Eisler and Levine are optimists, even advocates for seeking to change the brain and its neural activity through conscious behavioral changes on a social level. In their conclusion they write, "We argue that the biochemical balance we have learned to accept in 'normal' society is in fact not the level of balance that promotes the best physical and mental health. In other words, we need to readjust the levels we consider normal…Since supportive social attachments (in and out of families) tend to increase oxytocin levels and decrease levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, there is every reason to suspect the same biochemical effects from increasing the level of interpersonal support on a societal scale through institutions and policies that disinhibit rather than inhibit caring."
In other words, we can change the world, and we must. These authors are speaking on a rather grand scale; my frame of reference is more modest, beginning with professional skin care as an acceptable form of social touching, as well as a results-driven health practice.
Touch is essential to the science, craft, and art of what we do as skin therapists. While I am not one to wear crystals or engage in sagebrush-smudgings, this realization is how I differentiate our practice from the medispa and the dermatologist. We are primarily energy-workers. I feel that professional skin therapists are descendants in the long history of healers who relied upon touching the patient as a means of diagnosis, curing, and prevention of disease. This approach is present in all indigenous cultures, from pre-Europeanized North America to Siberia to Africa to Australia. Incredibly, a professional skin care treatment is a powerful re-engagement to this sense of connection which is native in every one of us, and which is essential to our survival not as killer primates, but as fully human beings.

 Jane Wurwand, established The International Dermal Institute, a postgraduate skin and body care training center, in 1983. Jane teaches her innovative education and product philosophies throughout the world. Under Jane's continuing direction, The International Dermal Institute is the research and development center for the Dermalogica professional skin care line, introduced in the U.S. in 1986 and currently distributed worldwide. Jane can be contacted through The Dermal Group at 310-352-4784, or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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