The Healing Power of Touch

By Jeremy McCarthy / September 12, 2011

Frederick II, the King of Sicily in the 13th century, considered himself a bit of a scientist. Among the many experiments he conducted during his reign was one he designed to determine the true, original human language. He believed that if you took infants at birth and removed them from their parents, ensuring that they never heard a spoken word, they would grow up speaking the original ancient language of humanity, giving a clue to the roots of all humankind.

He selected several newborns to be whisked away at birth and cared for by foster mothers who were instructed to feed and to wash them but to not speak to them and to not show them affection. Unfortunately for Frederick (and even more so for his subjects), the research findings were inconclusive because not a single one of the infants survived “for they could not live without the petting and joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers.” Thankfully, Frederick’s research study has never been replicated. But many studies of children growing up in orphanages have shown that without the nurturing touch and affection of adults, children do not flourish. In medical settings with adult patients, touch has been found to be a powerful instrument for healing and relaxation, even when it is as simple as a nurse palpating a patient’s pulse. And loving touch between couples has been shown to reduce stress and aid healing. As it turns out, humans need touch to survive and thrive.

I recently met Rob Buckley, an extraordinary massage therapist from Colorado, who had a dream of bringing the power of touch to the “untouchable” castes in Nepal. The “untouchables” are those at the lowest level of society. They are considered to be so impure that they are kept separated from other members of society. They are banned from temples and other public buildings, are not allowed to drink water from public taps, and suffered other humiliations as a member of the lower caste. Although in Nepal, it is considered taboo to touch or be touched by a member of these castes, Rob believed that by teaching these “untouchables” the power of massage, they would have a marketable skill that would allow them to be hired by spas and clinics in more progressive areas of Nepal, or in neighboring countries where they could live a better life. Most importantly, they would stimulate a tide of social change as they learned to use their touch to create healing and joy.

What makes Rob extraordinary is not so much his vision, but that he made it a reality, opening a massage school in Nepal ( where he has been teaching this new trade to these amazing people. Those who graduate from the school increase their earning potential dramatically, but the economic benefits are nothing compared to the emotional healing that his students go through. “By learning how to heal others they are healing themselves,” he said. “And then they bring that healing back to their family and their community.” Rob is a living example of how touch can heal and transform.

To practice the power of touch in your own life, bring some conscious attention to how you use (or don’t use) touch with the people around you:

Just touch. Consider using touch as a form of communication for family members and loved ones. Without using words, try using touch to communicate love, gratitude, forgiveness, or other positive emotions.

Feel the love. Imagine that you can feel the healing properties of touch each time you come in contact with a loved one. Feel your heart rate go down and relaxation go up. Notice the effect your touch has on others.

Open yourself to touch. Notice the times when touch is not welcome. What are the places on your body that you feel uncomfortable about? Whose touch do you avoid? Are there ways to use touch to heal and bring you closer together with the people you love?

Perhaps the most powerful way to use touch is to do what Rob Buckley does and bring it to those who are touch deprived. On the other hand, in today’s hi-tech, low-touch world, where social connections are virtual and friends are further away, maybe that applies to all of us. Maybe we are all becoming “untouchables.” But like the untouchables in Nepal, by touching others, we may just be able to heal ourselves.

Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy

Group Director of Spa at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
Jeremy McCarthy is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. He has over 20 years of experience operating luxury spas in resort and hotel properties worldwide and is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. You can find more of his writing on his blog at
Jeremy McCarthy

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