in collaboration with the CAMBRIDGE BODY PSYCHOTHERAPY CENTRE, Whole Being Films present:
BEING IN TOUCH: COMMUNICATING THROUGH
TOUCH IN PSYCHOTHERAPY
A ONE DAY CONFERENCE 2022
Recorded AT KING’S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY
Communicating through the medium of touch is part of relating in body psychotherapy. Speaking
and touching are two streams of communication which weave together in relationships. Touch is a
language in its own right. Sometimes touch conveys more than words can say; sometimes words
cannot do justice to the expression of feelings. Body psychotherapists are trained to touch, have a
touch lexicon, are skilled in its timely therapeutic use, and know how to observe and discuss the
impact of touching on clients and themselves.
Ways of touching are diverse and complex. Varying speed, rhythm, pressure and depth, focussing
on different tissues of the body, touching skin to skin, through clothes and blankets, touching with
finger tips, the palms of the hands, and back to back are some of the possibilities. Through
experience the skills and methods of touching become embedded in the psychotherapist and are
pulled out of the practitioner, often intuitively, in a “dance” between client and therapist.
Unfortunately, other forms of psychotherapy have neglected therapeutic touching, and usually have
no training in it. Often, as in society, there is ambivalence about it. Discussions between
psychotherapists of other modalities have tended to be somewhat limited and general, rather than
exploratory and detailed.
Until fairly recently neuroscience has also neglected research on
touch, and concentrated on the other senses. However, there is now a burgeoning interest with papers being
written on Affective Touch, mirror touch, vicarious tactile experience and so on. The importance of touch in infancy is also
generating papers. In society generally the international Touch Test has awakened touch as a
topic for discussion and the social distancing of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted what it is like not to be able to touch people
and how vital it is for feeling connected with others.
We hope in this one-day conference to bring together body psychotherapists, psychotherapists from
other modalities and neuroscientists to exchange ideas and start a dialogue with each other. Much
remains unknown about touching therapeutically. What, for example, is happening from a
neuroscientific perspective when we touch in a particular way? Why is one form of touch more
effective for some sorts of clients than others? Why might touch be the first form of help for a
particular client? Is it better not to touch some clients and why might that be?
1) Professor Francis McGlone: Losing Touch with Touch: It Will Cost Us Dearly
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu stated that the sense of touch plays an adaptive role in
evolution as a form of social communication that crosses cultures, genders, and age groups. Its
absence, he posits, effects babies’ growth, both physically and mentally, as found many years ago
by Rene Spitz and more recently in Romanian orphans, with many children showing cognitive and
emotional deficits, adverse responses to stress, and aggressive behaviours. Covid has thrown into
stark relief just how vital touch is to the whole human race!
Support for this link between touch and stress / aggression was also made by James Prescott, a
developmental neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
(NICHD), who studied the relationship between mother-child bonding and the subsequent
development of social abilities. In this venture he was inspired by Harry Harlow’s (in)famous
experiments on rhesus monkeys which established a link between neurotic, antisocial and
aggressive behaviour in monkeys and a lack of physical maternal care in infancy i.e., tactile neglect.
He had no idea why.
Regarding a mechanism that might explain these abnormal behaviours, Prescott presciently pointed
the finger at a lack of touch during early development causing brain abnormalities and subsequent
abnormal social behaviours. As with the aggressive behaviours noted by Harlow, he hypothesised
that early life neglect / abuse was a major cause of adult aggressive and antisocial behaviours.
However, his view of child abuse did not go down well with the establishment. In 1980 he
published an article with shocking illustration of abused children in order to reach an audience
outside of the scientific community, for which he was fired by the NICHD. In his defence to the
U.S. Senate and House Appropriations Committee he testified that “we are producing more
criminals . . . ‘by the manner in which we are raising our children … than we will be able to house in
all the prisons that we can build.’ Of note here is that the U.S. is the only country among 41 nations
that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents (OECD, 2018)! Abused or neglected children
are at increased risk of developing numerous psychopathologies whereas good parent-infant
bonding is associated with improved resiliency to stress.
In this opening talk I will propose a somatosensory mechanism that, at the very start of life, shapes
the destiny of the stable social brain, so sorely lacking in the examples cited above, and
unsurprisingly it is the sense of touch. But not the sense of touch we instinctively think about such
as when someone taps you on the shoulder; this type of touch relies on a class of mechanosensory
nerves in the skin that are unsheathed in an insulating layer of myelin, the function of which is to
speed up the transmission of nerve signals to the brain. The touch nerves of interest in this talk are
a relatively recently discovered – in humans – population of unmyelinated nerves, called c-tactile
afferents, that respond preferentially to gentle stroking and caressing touch, such as that between a
mother and her infant. Signals in these nerves can take seconds to arrive in the brain where they
project to emotion processing areas. Highly nurtured children grow up to be calm and peaceful
adults while those who receive little nurturing care tend to grow up to be anxious and stressed and
lacking in ‘inner peace’.
“I am now convinced that the deprivation of physical sensory pleasure is the principal root cause of
violence. Physically affectionate human societies are highly unlikely to be physically violent.”
2) Professor Aikaterini (Katerina) Fotopoulou: The Neuroscience of Affective
Touch From the Lab to the Couch
In this talk I will present insights from the psychology and neuroscience of affective touch,
including the mechanisms by which affective touch acts to facilitate affective regulation (e. g. the
neurophysiological mechanisms by which parents can sooth stress or pain by touch), affective
communication (e.g. how touch can communicate social support or empathy) and self-development
(how touch interactions in early life teach us about our body boundaries) in health and in disease.
Such effects of social touch acquired a new resonance in the year of social distancing measures,
reminding us the well-studied role of contact comfort in development, relatedness and health. Yet
the role of touch in psychotherapy remains debated and largely understudied. I will explore relevant
data collected in the larger touch survey in the UK, including 8000 individuals who have had
experience of different psychotherapeutic modalities on the perceived value of touch in
psychotherapy. In light of these findings, I will discuss the potential value and risk of touch in
psychotherapy. (NB: a short section of this presentation has been removed for copyright reasons)
3) Dr Natalie Bowling: Individual variability in touch attitudes and experiences
(NB: video not currently included due to publication timetable issues)
Touch plays a fundamental role in our daily lives. Interpersonal touch can be beneficial for social
communication, strengthening social bonds and reducing stress. However, attitudes and experiences
of touch vary considerably between individuals and contexts, meaning touch may not always be
welcomed. In this talk I will present evidence from a large UK adult sample surveyed for The
Touch Test. Here we investigated individual difference factors predicting attitudes and experiences
of touch, and the subsequent impact on wellbeing. Trait extraversion was the strongest predictor of
attitudes towards friendly social touch (such as handshakes), while attachment avoidance and
anxiety more strongly predicted attitudes and experiences of intimate touch (such as kissing and
caressing). Touch attitudes were shown to moderate effects on wellbeing, where more positive
attitudes were associated with a greater benefit of touch for improving mental wellbeing and
reducing loneliness. The results support the benefits of touch for health and wellbeing, but also
highlight the need for an awareness of individual differences in this domain.
4) Gill Westland: Touch in Body Psychotherapy
Theo Raymond reading Gill Westland’s part of the presentation
This talk outlines touch as a Core Competency in Body Psychotherapy, the problems of
“contactlessness”, and how coming into contact through “contactful touch” improves relationships.
Touch methods will be discussed and links made between the methods of packing, holding and
energy distribution – methods used in the body psychotherapy methods of biodynamic massage –
and the activation of the C-Tactile system.
Reasons to touch will be outlined and ways of “listening” to the client’s response. We conclude
that touch is an important skill for a psychotherapist, but it requires adequate training for the
5) Tom Warnecke: Stirring the depths – Reflections on touch in psychotherapy
Touch has been a central aspect of body psychotherapy since the days of Wilhelm Reich. The
Corona pandemic has pushed psychotherapy into the digital age which coincidentally has made
psychotherapy more accessible than ever before. What are the implications for body-psychotherapy
practice? And how might we integrate and utilise the qualities of touch and tactile contact as
psychological spaces in contemporary post- pandemic practice?
6) Dr Elya Steinberg: Attuned touch – a biodynamic psychology perspective
The process of ‘affect attunement’ is the web of phenomena through which we can attune ourselves
to the emotional world of ourselves and others. It has been identified as an important aspect of
relationality throughout a person’s lifespan. This process can be channelled via a multitude of
different verbal and non-verbal communication pathways; however, this presentation specifically
explores the manner in which ‘affect attunement’ is applied via the non-verbal pathway of haptic
The biodynamic haptic communication can be more coherently understood and termed as ‘attuned
touch’ – an implicit and explicit ways of non-verbally communicative affect attunement, i. e. “the
path to sharing inner feeling states” (Stern 2004, 84). As with all branches of ‘affect attunement’, it
is a way to support people seeking to resolve psycho-affective challenges through sequences of
regulation and “acceptance of intrinsic affective states and their communication by active contact”
According to an interpretation based on Fotopoulou’s concept (Fotopoulou, 2017) of ‘homeostatic
mentalisation’ as a social cue, ‘attuned touch’ should be considered as an essential supporting part
of the process of ‘homeostatic mentalisation’ in the intersubjective space. However, interfering in
the effort of understanding attuned touch in the context of biodynamic psychotherapy is the marked
lack of a sufficiently “detailed inquiry” (Sullivan 1970, 89) tracking the subtle microscopic care of
‘moment-to-moment’ complex choreography of interpersonal micro-adaptations and micro-co-
regulations which explain ‘attune touch’ on a fundamental level.
This short talk will briefly explore the potential benefits of a reciprocal relationship between
experimental sciences and clinical practice: How said relationship validates some of the conceptual
states of being and communication pathways employed and explored by Biodynamic
psychotherapists who work with ‘attuned touch’; how experimental sciences can inform
practitioners of clinical practice; and how clinical practice can inform the research of, and embody
the formulation of, hypotheses for future experimental sciences. This will be explored as a tender
oscillation between empiricism, the theory of knowledge based on experience derived from the
senses, the phenomenalism, the theory of knowledge driven from the object of a person’s
perception, and the nature of being.
Sissy lykou: Touch as contact, touch as language: when therapeutic touch bridges
cultures and emotional repertoires
Carl Rogers postulated that ‘to be in contact is to be in relationship’. In this binary idea of contact,
with all its reciprocity and consensus, the sense of self cannot be separated from culture and
embodied history. My talk and a mini experiential exercise, with the participants of the conference,
will explore therapeutic touch in relation to culture within the discipline of embodied movement
Dr David Tune: Reflections on researching touch
I intend to present some of the findings from my doctoral research about the ‘ethical use of touch in
psychotherapy’. I hope to involve the attendees in a brief experiential exercise (optional) to
illustrate the main initial research question regarding the motivation to touch or abstain. I also
intend to invite a short discussion on this topic, before moving on to describe the other main theme
of ‘processing touch’ that emerged from the research.
General discussion and questions (Anna Coen)
Where do we go from here? Anna Coen, Jon Chapman, Theo Raymond
(Summary of the day).