Insights: Reach Out and Touch

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UCI has a superb free lecture series called “Distinctive Voices.” The topics are based around science and what is relevant to our world today.

I attended one of these lectures, “The Magic of Emotional Touch,” taught by Dr. Katalin Gothard, a professor of Physiology and Neuroscience from the University of Arizona.

Dr. Gothard started her research in Romania with orphans back in 1986. The trauma these children experienced from the lack of care, and the lack of touch, left them with the inability to function in any sort of relationship.

Gothard’s research on the brain showed how emotional touch impacts our well-being.  The amygdala (the emotional hub of the brain) is known for its instinctive ability to keep us safe. It regulates what is safe and what is not safe while looking for what we need to survive and thrive.

What was fascinating to me is that the amygdala responds to touch. In other words, we need touch like we need sunlight. It is essential for our well-being. I had known that touch improves our immune system and improves our mood, but it was new to me that we need it to survive.

The significance and need for touch starts at birth. Studies show that children who do not get enough touch are more likely to have anxiety and/or behavioral problems.

The elderly are in desperate need for touch, and are likely to be the most deprived. This deprivation is showing up in a high rate of depression amongst seniors.

A few years back, I had to have an MRI. Not being a great fan of small spaces, I was pretty anxious. However, with a friend holding my hand when I went in, I felt much calmer and was able to get through it pretty well.

A month ago I had to have another MRI. I did it alone, and struggled to manage my anxiety. My heart was racing, I was sweating, and wanted to get out. I wanted my friend to be there; I know it would have calmed me down.

Touch can make all the difference.

Take time every day to touch the people you are close to, and this can just be a hand on the shoulder. Also, make sure you look them in the eyes. This releases dopamine in the brain, which makes us feel good. This is a way to keep connections in relationships.

You can make new connections everywhere.

The Newport Beach Public Library has a wonderful series of programs ranging from author discussions to financial workshops and children’s activities. Sherman Library & Gardens has everything from plant shows and lectures to afternoon teas. And what about beautiful Roger’s Gardens, which offers interactive classes on everything from holiday workshops to growing edible gardens.

So with all the opportunities we have in Newport Beach, take the time to not only learn something new, but also to reach out to someone in the group and just say “hello” and smile. It will make both of you feel better.

American psychologist and educator James W. Angell once wrote, “To touch a child’s face, a dog’s smooth coat, a petaled flower, the rough surface of a rock is to set up new orders of brain motion. To touch is to communicate.”

Even Diana Ross sang about the power of touch: “Reach out and touch / Somebody’s hand / Make this world a better place / If you can.”

Websites for the local activities mentioned:

Distinctive Voices at UCI: visit the programs section at

Newport Beach Library:

Roger’s Gardens:

Sherman Library & Gardens:

Contact Dr. Shelly Zavala at or [email protected]

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