How Your Brain Responds To Touch vs Tech (Part 2 of 5)


By Caralee Frederic, LCSW | Certified Gottman Therapist | Couples Workshop Presenter

What happens when human connection is lost? When we become overly concerned with virtual connections? How do we fight back against obsessive technology-use in our homes? This is part 2 of a 4-part series, “Love Touches: Being Human and In Tune; Why We Need Human Connections in an Increasingly High-Tech World.” The series concludes with my ATTUNE formula to help couples and families truly connect and form lasting, loving relationships.

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Love Touches: The Soothing Touch

Remember the song from the Beatles, glorifying the simple pleasure of hand-holding? “I Want to Hold Your Hand” crooned over the radio waves and told us that “when I touch you, I feel happy inside.”

Who hasn’t experienced the power of holding a baby, stroking a child’s hair, rubbing a back, hugging a friend to soothe and comfort? Today I’m excited to share with you some research on the brain: human connection vs. technological disconnect.

Handholding and the brain

First, the results of a 2006 University of Virginia study found touch in high-quality marriages helps to calm fears and anxiety.

The study was hailed as the first to study neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first to measure how close relationships enhance emotional health.

The study involved couples who first rated their marriages on a scale measuring satisfaction. Researchers placed the women in a functional MRI machine to monitor their brain activity while subjected to the threat of a mild electric shock. The couples were divided into 3 groups: In one group, each subject held her husband’s hand; in another, each woman held the hand of an anonymous experimenter; in a 3rd, no one held the women’s hands. The MRI showed how these women’s brains responded to this touch while in a threatening situation.

The MRI result showed that for those women who were Happily Married, holding their husband’s hand completely shut down fear response in her brain. For those who rated themselves as Unhappily Married, who held their husband’s hand, the fear response shut down a little, but not all the way. For women in either camp who held hands with a stranger, there was no change in the fear response, and it was the same for those women who held nobody’s hand. Even women who rated their marriages as poor received some benefit from holding their husbands’ hands.

If, then, loving, positive human touch is so powerful that it can literally turn off the fear response in our brains, what happens to relationships in which the partners are overly engrossed in their technological devices?

Technology’s disconnect

Researchers have only begun to study the effects of technological usage on the brain. Thus far, studies show that excessive usage of technology atrophies or shrinks the areas of the brain that are tied to communication, processing information, and social interactions.

In her February 2014 Psychology Today article, “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain,” Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., references various neuroimaging studies that show “internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.”

Dunckley’s observations as a practitioner is that many children “suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system.” She called it “electronic screen syndrome,” and says children with it are “impulsive, moody and can’t pay attention.”

These studies suggest high usage of technology affects the way people regulate emotions, their abilities to remember events, to pay attention to things, and to communicate with others – all the things that are important to facilitate successful bids.

Marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D, identified failed bids – that moment when a person seeks the attention of their partner, and the partner does not respond or mis-responds – as a key predictor of divorce. A successful bid is when a positive connection is made.

Additionally, technology robs us of necessary human contact and deep relationships – which, as previously discussed, form an essential foundation for empathy and caring.

I share the concerns of many who witness the negative impact of our increasing, even obsessive and addictive, use of technology, creating dangerously unhealthy relationships.

Technology cannot replace human interaction

David A. Bednar, former president of BYU-Idaho and a prominent leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said:

“Sadly, some (people) ignore ‘things as they really are’ and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value. My heart aches when a young couple … . experiences marital difficulties because of the addicting effect of excessive video gaming or online socializing.”

In a May 2010 General Conference speech, he continued: “A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games.

“Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication.”

Clearly, the human touch soothes, comforts, connects at the most basic levels. We need one another intimately. The emotional part of the brain calms when it feels connected to another person. When we stop connecting and holding hands, we feel left on our own and the result is increased anxiety, depression and other emotional and social afflictions.

Tech addiction

Technology addictions are only the newest addiction on the landscape of addictions – alcohol, drugs, nicotine, work, sex, food; the list goes on. The process for overcoming a tech addiction is the same as recovery from other addictions.

Often, the misuse of, dependency upon and addiction to technology, like other vices, are fueled by a person’s desire for an “easy fix,” or to avoid the pain associated with a past relational connection or disconnection.

In part 3 of my 5-part series, I provide insight on general addiction recovery concepts based upon my work as a certified Sexual Addiction Recovery Therapist.