Physical Touch Influences Emotional Reactions

The objects you touch on a daily basis may influence your thoughts and
behavior more than you realize. Researchers have found that physical connection
to items can directly embody abstract concepts like a “hard sell,”
“warm person” and “rough conversation.”

  Debi Latour
  Debi Latour

The three researchers — from Yale University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and Harvard University — presented various
participants with a series of items and asked them to describe their feelings
about the interactions. According to a press release, people interviewing job
applicants while holding heavy clipboards found the applicants to be more
serious than interviewers holding light clipboards; people who had recently
handled rough jigsaw puzzle pieces characterized a conversation as adversarial,
as compared to those who touched smooth pieces; and participants seated in
hard, cushionless chairs were less willing to compromise in price negotiations
than people who sat in soft, comfortable chairs.

While it is a widely accepted concept that thoughts can affect a
person’s physical well-being, this study implies a greater reciprocal
connection than previously understood.

“We thought about top-down control — the brain controlling the
body — but the body is also controlling the brain,” John A. Bargh,
PhD, Yale professor of psychology and cognitive science, said. “It’s

But what does that mean for amputees? That depends on when the loss
occurred, Bargh told O&P Business News. Infants explore much
of the world with their hands, and those early experiences lay the foundation
for their ability to understand abstract concepts later in life.

Without hands, their initial exploration of the world will be much

“I would expect these priming effects would not be very strong in
people who did not develop concepts that way,” he said. However, “the
conceptual structure is going to be there if the hands are lost later [in
life], because they were there early and that’s how the concepts

This idea raises additional questions: Whether the hand loss happened
early or late in life, what are the physical experiences that activate the
concepts in adulthood for amputees, if they lack the ability to touch with
their hands?

“You’ll have other experiences, like sitting on something or
bumping into something hard, walking barefoot on hard stone versus in cushy
running shoes,” Bargh said.

In addition to those experiences, amputees also may have their own set
of abstract concepts based on their specific reality, since the prostheses
— the actual prosthetic devices — may have the ability to induce
these sensations, he said. For example, the plastic or metal of the device
could be a constant hard priming effect. The bond of the interface to the skin,
on the other hand, might activate a feeling of closeness and comfort.

“There may be something special about people who have these
devices, because of these kinds of physical sensations they’re getting
constantly and chronically that the rest of us don’t,” he said.

Debi Latour, OT, senior occupational therapist at Shriners Hospitals for
Children in Springfield, Mass., said that the real-life effects of this concept
on amputees may be undermined by the rest of the body, which quickly adapts to
a limb’s absence.

“I think, what’s important to all of us — handed,
no-handed, people with hearing impairment or visual impairment — we
can’t discount the fact that, because we are so wonderfully made with so
many back-up plans … they all kind of kick in,” Latour said.

Inspired by this concept, Latour and her colleagues at Shriners
conducted their own nonscientific experiment. Latour, who also happens to be a
unilateral transradial amputee and prosthesis “super user,”
positioned herself with her eyes covered and her natural hand restrained.
Another of Shriners’ occupational therapists presented a series of objects
to Latour, whose only connection to these objects was her body-powered,
voluntary closing terminal device. Moving down the line of the concepts of hard
and soft, rough and smooth, and heavy and light, Latour discerned with 100%
accuracy which object embodied each concept.

Although she would not have been able to identify the objects this way,
she was able to describe the overriding characteristic of the items. In fact,
her explanation of the feel of some of the items provided a clear picture of
those tems — for example, when she described an item covered in moleskin
as being soft like moleskin.

“What that told us is that [I could use] other information, almost
like a sense of proprioception or vibration through my prosthesis,” she

Results of research like Bargh’s also may affect the future
proprioceptive development. If people’s capacity for eliciting sensation
from objects so strongly influences how they perceive the world, then it is
pertinent that they are not deprived of this ability.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the power of these effects,”
Bargh said. “They don’t seem, at a conscious level, to be that
important, and we certainly think it’s not going to affect us that much,
but yet, in our studies, they’re fairly powerful effects.”
by Stephanie Z. Pavlou


One cannot dispute Bargh’s feeling that infants explore the world with their hands, and those early experiences lay the foundation for their ability to understand abstract concepts later in life. However, to make the “transition” and imply that without hands, the ability for an individual to not completely develop these abstract concepts — such as “hard sell,” “warm person” or rough conversation” — is difficult to accept.

My 35 years of experience with individuals who are born without arms, lose them as a child or experience amputation as an adult has reinforced the reality check that there is no sensory deficit if an individual lacks the ability to touch with their hands. In fact, my experience shows quite the opposite.

Although many of my patients born without hands have never handled textures as a child at their fingertips, such as warm, tough, hard and soft, their other body surfaces and senses beautifully compensate to what their hands cannot feel. As Latour stated, “They all kick in.”

My experience shows that the body’s sensory feedback, proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses, of one without one or both arms, is often more in touch than in those of us who have arms.

To be able to crack an egg, to fry it, without feeling it, as an amputee wearing a prosthesis can do, is proof of this. Additionally, when one is not able to feel as we do, or visually attend to the task being performed as noise and distractions occur, yet still complete it without skipping a beat after repeated practice, never ceases to amaze me as I train my patients.

This heighted awareness is a gift I have witnessed in hundreds of limb deficient children and adults. Prostheses can add, and enhance, this process, or not. The choice of using a prosthesis is the user’s. But one thing I feel certain: Being unable to experience the world with one or both hands, and therefore being unable to fully understand abstract sensory concepts in life, is simply untrue.

— Diane Atkins, OTR, FISPO

Assistant clinical professor, department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, Baylor College of Medicine

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