Decades of research has shown that human touch is essential for babies to develop and thrive. But more recent research shows that it's just as vital for adults as it is for newborns.
Thursday night Bible study in Skagit County, Washington, sounds like your normal men's prayer meeting. At Tierra Nueva Ministries, men’s Bible study begins with worship.
Ramon plays the guitar, singing a beautiful Spanish hymn, as the other men pray. The laying on of hands isn't unusual, but it took these men some time to be comfortable receiving God's love through touch.
Chris Hoke met most of them as chaplain of the county jail.
"In the jail, guys don't touch. And on the streets they wouldn't," Hoke said. "I think the only place they'd have it is just an over-sexualized sense of touch with girlfriends."
Julio, who asked not to use his last name, was one of those inmates.
"There's guys that are scared of being touched because they need to put up a front, that tough guy role," Julio explained. "And when someone, just some stranger comes in and tells you he loves you, and he gives you a hug, it's something you're not used to. It's a feeling that you feel that somebody cares about you."
"It was surprising how much guys wanted a hug right when they came through that door," Hoke said. "Just boom, and they'd want to hug, and some guys would say, you know, 'Sometimes I come just to get my fix.' I saw how much there's a hunger for it, if it's healthy."
Programmed for Touch
So why this hunger for touch? According to neuroscientists, our brains are programmed for human contact.
"There's a whole array of compounds that play together in order to allow touch and social interaction to affect our brain," Dr. Paul Aravich, a professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School told CBN News.
The hypothalamus area of the brain produces oxytocin, which is released upon positive touch. That compound can reduce fear and increase trust.
For many of the men Hoke works with, positive touch played a major role in their healing and growth.
Their progress was threatened, however, when the jail put in place a "no contact" rule. Inmates were allowed only what they called a "business handshake," and chaplains were told to reject anything else.
"At first, to me, it seemed like the guys almost became more violent," Hoke recalled. "Especially in those first few weeks, more fights were breaking out, as if they were swinging just for some kind of contact."
Dr. Aravich is not surprised at this reaction.
"The lack of touching causes all kinds of changes in brain development and brain organization," he explained.
In the mid 1900s,Dr. Harry Harlow found this in experiments where he deprived monkeys of physical contact from birth. The results were heartbreaking.
"If you take a social creature, and isolate it, and look at a part of the brain called the hippocampal formation, psychosocial deprivation actually causes a physical injury to that particular part of the brain," Aravich said. "Our brains were designed to be with other brains."
Research shows the first sense developed in the womb is touch, as early as eight weeks gestation, highlighting the need for proper touch from day one.
At Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Rebecca Holmes rests peacefully with her newborn son, Bryce. She chose to participate in an increasingly popular practice called "skin-to-skin."
"For skin-to-skin, immediately after birth we try to have the baby go directly onto the mom's abdomen so the mom immediately gets to hold and feel her baby," Reagan Boom, clinical manager at Sentara Princess Anne, said.
Forty years of research shows this contact leads to many benefits for the babies and their mothers.
"It was an indescribable feeling; it's just something that you'll never forget, and that bond that you'll have forever started at that moment," Rebecca said.
That secure bond gives baby Bryce a foundation that can help him throughout life, from academics to sports.
In Norfolk, Virginia, the men’s basketball team at Old Dominion University can be seen using positive touch – from high fives to back slaps -- typical of most sports teams.
In sports, trust between teammates is essential. Since we know now that positive touch creates a sense of trust between people, does it affect team performance? To find out, scientists left the lab and headed to the basketball court.
Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley studied basketball teams over a complete season. After determining 12 types of positive touch between teammates during game play, they detailed the occurrence and duration of each one.
Their results showed the "touchier" players and teams actually performed better than their counterparts.
Meanwhile, back at the Bible study in Skagit County, these former inmates, who could only rely on themselves in prison, are now learning to count on others.
Chaplain Hoke credits that to Jesus, and how he's touched these men's lives.
"I think that's what God came to do is to touch us," Hoke said. "Jesus crossed such a span between us, so that we could be one. And so I think the touch is just the beginning of that, of a love story."
"I feel like there's a intimacy with Jesus when two men are touching each other and praying for each other," he said. "It's like you could feel the energy when someone is touching, putting their hands on you and praying for you. You can feel the power of Christ going through that person's hands and going into your body."