A couple of days ago I was in a discussion group talking about a recent episode of Hidden Brain, “Bringing up Baby”, which discussed several topics like pre-speech babbling, prosocial activity and tantrums.
We got a little off track talking about the psychology of tantrums, it turns out that they have two components: anger and distress. In the end the child is needing to be consoled. The source of the tantrum can be totally illogical. (One child wanted to sit at the head of a round table.) Reasoning not only doesn't work; it's counterproductive. I asked where the distress comes from in the first place. No one really knew. I suggested that it might stem from a lack of touch, and then said, “Lack of touch can cause marasmus in which infants waste away and die”.
My friend, a retired medical school professor, who has encyclopedic knowledge and zero tact straightened me out. Marasmus is a form of wasting away caused by lack of a combination of nutrients. Kwashiorkor, by contrast, is caused by a primary protein deficiency. That lack of protein results in swelling, and those kids on T.V. with swollen bellies from places like Ethiopia are suffering from kwashiorkor.
Of course, I came home and looked it all up and Don, the professor, was right. In fact his definition was essentially word for word that found in online dictionaries.
I knew that children can die from lack of touch. It’s a real thing, and I saw it as a medical student. Maybe marasmus was mentioned by the professor as something that needed to be ruled out. Whatever the case, I misremembered.
I then asked myself how lack of touch kills. It’s not clear, but articles in Psychology Today from about eight years ago dealt with the power of touch, and there are articles elsewhere that emphasize the healing power of touch.
I did find that all warm blooded animals need touch. Your dog licking her puppies is touching as well as cleaning them. Puppies that aren’t licked don’t grow. I’m convinced that dogs feel empathy, but they can also act in what appears to be cold blooded neglect. That same mother who spends hours a day licking her pups will take a sickly pup and place it outside of the kennel to die. Presumably this is an evolutionary trait developed to prevent wasting nutrition (and licking) on a pup that is not going to make it anyway.
Why does touch matter? How does it work?
Lack of touch causes a slowdown in growth in many of the body’s organs; some more than others. The orbito-frontal cortex in the brain is greatly affected by early childhood environment, failing to develop properly in children who are emotionally starved.
Growth hormone is produced in smaller quantities than normal, and oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone - is stimulated through touch. Oxytocin influences the growth of cells throughout the body.
“Research in 2010 found that when there’s insufficient oxytocin present, which an infant gets from emotional warmth and warm physical contact, the rate of growth of heart muscle cells is significantly reduced. Evidence seems to suggest that oxytocin makes a similar key contribution to the early growth of numerous cell types in the body.” (David R. Hamilton, PhD). This article linked to The Bucharest Early Intervention project as reported by UNICEF. Unfortunately, the report is in Cyrilic and probably in Russian or Bulgarian.
The lack of growth as expected for age is given the descriptive term, “failure to thrive”. Failure to thrive is not a diagnosis, and the cause of the failure has to be established. In developed countries FTT is almost always caused by underlying disease rather than starvation. I developing countries lack of nutrition or parasitic infestation must be considered more strongly as a cause.
I could find no specific term for lack of touch as a cause for failure to thrive.
Did you ever wonder whether the current virtual world of interaction between children, teenagers and young adults is leaving a void in interaction? Does the lack of touch create problems?
Apparently, it does. And, apparently kids have found a solution; group hugging.
Note that this sort of group hugging in schools is not romantic hugging. Girls hug girls. Boys hug boys. Boys and girls hug. There are three way hugs and about any awkward combination possible. An article in the New York Times mentioned that teachers refer to “one hour hugs” and “all day hugs”. It seems that this is the compensation for living in virtual reality. “I broke up with Jim (broken heart emoticon).” “I’m so sorry.” (weeping emoticon) What she really needed was a hug.
A friend (retired navy) told me that his first wife was raised in an orphanage. She had no idea how to raise their kids and the kids did not learn how to be loved or to parent. Studies done decades ago with monkey babies, separated from their mothers, found that those who were given a soft imitation mother to hug did much better than those who had a wire “mother” placed in their play area. Those “wire mother” babies wasted away. The Bucharest Project which was apparently about the experience with Rumanian orphans realized this and devised intervention to nurture and to teach empathy.
In our discussion of marasmus, a retired psychology educator not-so-covertly consulted his smartphone as Don was delivering his marasmus lecture. The psychologist said that there was confusion between marasmus and mirasmus on my part. The latter was related to lack of touch.
I looked it up. That was apparently B.S. I can find no reference to marasmus with an ‘I’. This may have been a move to get on with the discussion.
The neuroscience professor, by the way, just acts like many medical school professors in my experience. Facts are facts. They are extremely competitive. Tact is a manifestation of weakness. I wonder how much touch they got as babies.
Touch does matter. As an intern I brought an attending physician up-to-date on a patient’s progress and current laboratory findings at the bedside.
When we left the room, Dr. Joseph stopped me in the hall and told me that I was a fine young doctor, but he had noticed that I didn’t touch patients enough. “It’s important. They get better faster when you do. If all you do is sit on the side of the bed and pretend to take their pulse it will be enough.” He was right about me and about the effect this had on patients. It made them feel better and it put me more in contact with my patients, literally. I think that the touching made me a better doctor.