How Cuddling Battles Toxic Masculinity

One of the things that’s said to be true about “Real Men” is that they don’t need affection or comfort. They are the lone wolf, never allowed to be vulnerable or to afraid or insecure. “Real Men” expected to literally take bullets for the ones under their protection, whether that’s a country or a family. There is an extended list of things “Real Men” aren’t allowed to do, ranging from drinking from a straw to eating ice cream to eating a banana out of the peel to wiping their butts after pooping to enjoying a cuddle.

This would all be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.

Toxic masculinity is the idea that men must remain within a very constrained set of behaviors and beliefs to remain “Real” men. Deviating from this type of behavior results in the loss of one’s “man card” – defined by Urban Dictionary as the “requirement to be acceptabed as a respectable member of the male community. Can and should be revoked by other respectable males for doing non-respectable male things.” The example cited on Urban Dictionary is of having to take away the man card of someone who cried in public after being dumped.

Not all of the examples in the first paragraph are particularly serious (though they are all real). But this has been studied seriously, as well. A study by Promundo (funded by Axe bodyspray) found seven pillars of traditional masculinity, including self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles, heterosexuality / homophobia, hypersexuality, and aggression / control.

Staying within the “Man Box,” as it’s called in the study, can provide a sense of satisfaction, but that comes at the price of feeling “cut off from their true selves.” Men who value being within the man box are significantly more likely to suffer from depression and are significantly more likely to have thoughts of suicide.

This is a big deal. Suicide is a leading killer. Globally, half of the people who die by violence commit that violence themselves. More than 75% of the nearly 45,000 people who die by suicide every year in the US are men. White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016, with the rate of suicide being highest in middle aged white men.

Men who subscribe to these rigid gender roles are likely to hurt others, too. There are countless stories of men who commit violence to prove their physical, economic, or sexual dominance. This article in the Economist says that “throughout history, men have killed men roughly 97 times more often than women have killed women.”

And violence isn’t the only way men are being hurt. Cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death of men in the US. A factors that increase risk of heart problems are correlated with stress and loneliness. Being trapped in the man box increases both of those factors.

Enter professional cuddling. This is a service that “Real Men” would never use, for multiple reasons. First of all, a Real Man has no need to be nurtured. Second, a Real Man has no need to feel connected to others. Third, a Real Man doesn’t indulge in self care. He eats stress for a snack, and doesn’t need a break from it.

The problem, for all those “Real Men” out there, is that none of those three things are true –but when you’re trapped in the “Man Box” you have to pretend that they are, or you’ll lose your man card.

Most of the people who see professional cuddlers nationally are men. did a study in 2017 where they found more than 90% of the people requesting time with a Cuddlist were male. My own client roster has been about 65% male since the start of my practice.

Many of the men who come to see me are dealing with the man box. You might notice none of the clients interviewed in the recent media pieces about my practice are men – that’s because the men who come see me aren’t willing to publicly admit that they do. That’s fine, by the way, I keep all my client information confidential. Most of my clients even pay me in cash, so there’s no record of the transaction anywhere.

The men who come to see me do report that it makes their lives better. Touch improves health and mood, and being able to be seen and accepted even in a vulnerable situation like asking to be held has powerfully positive effects.

Part of the reason I brought Holding Space into the world, and the reason I persist in trying to get this idea to catch on (in Indiana, which is definitely a place where lots of people still hold on to these toxic beliefs about masculinity) is because I believe that it’s important to normalize platonic touch. Not only is the practice beneficial, but the idea itself has benefits as well. A culture that understands that touch is so normal and useful that it can be bought and sold is a culture that has broken at least part of the grip of toxic masculinity.

Professional cuddling also provides a turtle step along the path of men experimenting with receiving nurturing in a non-sexual environment. They can come to me and not have to admit to anybody in their community that they are seeking this sort of care. Hopefully the work we do together will help them to explore connecting with another person, and they can take that skill into the world with them and use it in other parts of their lives.

I hate toxic masculinity and it’s damaging effect on our culture and the people within it. But I love men. I will never buy the hashtag that “men are trash”- because I know too many strong, brave, loving men about whom that’s simply not true. My approach to toxic masculinity can be expressed by quoting Rose Tico from The Last Jedi, because we’re gonna win by “not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”

I’d love to have a snuggle with you.

Snuggling Snuffleupagus

When I was a kid watching Sesame Street, I loved the character of Aloysius Snuffleupagus. He was introduced in 1971 when Big Bird caught Snuffleupagus tending to his garden, and for nearly 15 years the adults that live on Sesame Street never saw him.

Platonic touch and professional cuddling is a little like Snuffleupagus. People have heard of it, but they are maybe not entirely sure it’s real. I feel a little like Big Bird in these conversations. I’ve seen Snuffy, and the good things Snuffy does. But convincing the people around me that he’s even real is a huge challenge.

Indiana, where my practice is based, is a conservative place. Mike Pence, our former governor, famously refuses to have dinner alone with any woman who is not his wife, as a way to avoid infidelity. This seems bizarre to me for two reasons. First, it assumes that the only reason people of different genders would spend time together would be for sexual interaction. Second, it makes his wife accountable for his behavior, as though he can’t control himself around other women.

Meanwhile, I am not only offering to be in a room alone with men but to snuggle up to them – insisting all the while that no sexual interaction is going to occur. Much like the adults on Sesame Street once scoffed at Big Bird for his stories about Snuffleupagus, many people scoff at my insistence that I can touch men without having a sexual interaction.

The idea that all touch is inherently sexual may go back to Freud saying all children want to have sex with their parents. These theories are widely-discredited but still a part of the dominant culture’s understanding of relationships. Under such a model, all touch is sexual and penis substitutes can be found in any oblong item

In reality, touch plays a variety of roles in healthy relationships. When our friends or family or even acquaintances are grieving or hurting, we know that a touch can help them feel better. My go-to description for touch nearly everybody recognized as platonic is a hug during a funeral. Other examples include business handshakes, helping an elderly person over challenging terrain, or kissing away the hurt from a child’s skinned knee.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to turn those situations sexual. I am saying it’s a bad idea, though. Remember Joey Tribbiani, from the (terrible by today’s standards) show Friends who could add sexual innuendo to anything? Dudes, he’s NOT A ROLE MODEL! Oh, I’m sorry, did I raise my voice? Perhaps it’s because I believe so strongly that role models are supposed to show us how to be happier and healthier, not sicker and sadder.

Touch is good for the body and the mind – the science is clear about that. I (and my clients) believe it’s good for the soul, too, though that one is tougher to measure. And yet, my colleagues and I are out here like Big Bird, trying to convince the people around us that Snuffleupagus was JUST RIGHT HERE>

In the mid-80s, the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) started hearing from people who worked with kids that the idea that nobody believed Big Bird (when Big Bird was telling the truth) could be harmful to real life kids. They were afraid kids who experienced abuse would not tell adults their stories if they thought the adults were likely to just mock them for telling outlandish tales, like the adults on Sesame Street mocked Big Bird for his imaginary friend.

In a similar way, the idea that platonic touch isn’t real has the potential to damage adults who need touch in their lives, but believe that other adults will mock them for expressing that need. As awareness of this issue  grows, though, I hope that we’ll understand more clearly that platonic touch is real, and has an important place in our lives.

Once that understanding is in place, the people who need to find a way to heal their relationship with touch will have access to someone who specializes in platonic touch. As more people become aware of the benefits, the industry will grow and more people will study ways to do this work more effectively. CuddleXpo is a start in that direction. As the idea of platonic touch becomes normalized and more people are willing to talk about their experiences with professional cuddlers, word of mouth will become a more useful marketing tool, and it will become a virtuous cycle.

Are you one of the Big Bird people who believes in the power of platonic touch? Then come join me in my office for a private session, or one of my public group sessions.

Bodies are Weird

Bodies are weird.

They do things we aren’t very excited about, like farting and getting sore when we’re doing fun stuff and extruding…substances. Often times, these are sources of shame and embarrassment, silly as it is. We worry about allowing people to get too close, because they might find out that our bodies are gross too.

As though they don’t already know that, at some level.

When you decide that professional cuddler sounds like work you’d like to do in the world, you have to have a certain level of comfort around bodies – yours and other people’s. Of course, you (and your clients) make efforts to minimize the gross factor (by bathing, brushing teeth, and following rules that exclude the sharing of any sort of bodily fluids.) But still, bodies do have a mind of their own.

One of my regular clients would apologize if they thought their stomach was making noise during our session. Honestly, I never heard it. But I was almost glad when my stomach decided to practice singing one day while we were working together – because I was able to ask “Does my stomach noise bother you?” When it didn’t, they began to believe me that I was equally not alarmed by any noises her insides decided to share with me.

A common question for any professional cuddler is “what happens if the client becomes aroused?” There’s another weird thing bodies do…change shape on occasion. It’s not unusual for people to be afraid that they’ll be aroused if they’re close to another body – for some people the only time they get wrapped up with another body is when they’re leading up to sexual interaction. They’ve built such a strong association between the two things they don’t think their body can react any other way.

However, sexual interaction is not the only reason to get close to another human. I’m always a little sad when people suggest to me that all physical interaction with other humans is inherently sexual. It makes me wonder if they’ve never held a grieving friend, or kissed away a child’s hurt, or huddled against the wind to stay warm with friends. Research shows that casual touch improves performance, but If these people are to be believed, they will never be able to benefit from such improvement, because they simply keep their hands to themselves.

Touch has many benefits, from reducing stress and inflammation to increasing immune response and cognitive function. In our increasingly technological world, we sometimes find ourselves without access to touch. It is the combination of these two facts that has led to the rise of companies like Cuddle Party™,  Cuddle Sanctuary, and Holding Space, LLC (which I founded last year to provide an ethical source of nurturing touch.)

A lot of people worry that I can’t possibly  snuggle up to strangers and stay safe – but here’s the thing. Bodies may be weird, but we all have them. And bodies enjoy and benefit from being near other bodies. I am clear with my clients that the intention of our work together is never sexual – and that tends to hold up well in the container of my office. Because my body is relaxed, and because I set a relaxing tone with everything from the lighting to the music to the decoration, my clients are encouraged to remember how comforting it can be to be held and cared for by another body.

If you think you can manage the weirdness of having a body, and you are interested in the experience of being around another body in a platonic way, schedule some time with me or attend one of my group events.

The Opposite of Creepy

The Indianapolis Star published an article on my work recently, and of course I delved into the comments to see what people had to say. There were several commenters who said the service was “creepy.”

If I do it right, though, my service will reduce the amount of creepiness in the world.

Creepy, according to the dictionary, means “an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease.” People fear or are uneasy in situations where they don’t know what to expect. I’ve worked very hard to help people understand what to expect when they come in to see me.

That work starts with my client agreement. When I get electronic inquiries, the first thing I do is ask people to review my agreement. It’s short – just 258 words. If you read at average speed, you can read the whole thing in just over a minute. Several people have told me upon reading it that they don’t want to work with me because the agreement is too restrictive. This tells me the agreement is doing its job, helping people to understand the parameters of the session. Hopefully that reduces the sense of unease they feel.

When people complete the screening process and come in to see me, I start out checking in to see how they’re doing and what they want to get out of the session that day. Sometimes clients just want to talk and be heard. Most often, they want to be held. Either way, I let the client lead the session based on what they are looking for that day. Being in control of the helps to reduce any sense of fear or unease.

With both my one on one clients and my group sessions I try and help people get more comfortable expressing what they want. This is where my work starts to reduce the amount of creepiness in the world outside of my office. As people get better at expressing what they want, they also naturally get better at expressing what they don’t want. A lot of behavior that people label creepy is about someone trying to get interaction out of another person who doesn’t care to participate in that interaction. The creepy folk count on the fact that, in polite society, an uncomfortable person is going to stay uncomfortable rather than risk creating a scene.

Once professional cuddling clients or group cuddle participants start practicing and getting comfortable telling other people where their boundaries are, however, the creepy person’s weapon of choice stops working. As long as you feel like its rude to tell someone you don’t want a hug, you’re going to get hugs you don’t want. As soon as it becomes no big deal to say “no” to interaction you don’t want, the amount of interaction that you fear or feel uneasy about drops precipitiously.

When I was at Cuddle Sanctuary’s training this spring, Jean shared a story of one of their regular clients who got catcalled one day by someone, and who had become so comfortable saying “no thank you” in group cuddles that she just automatically responded “no thank you” and went about her day. It was only later she realized that she had rewired her brain to be comfortable saying no to people, and expecting that no to be respected. Her comfort telling people no had disarmed this strangers creepy behavior for her in this situation.

As we practice doing the vulnerable things, they become less scary. As we become less scared of expressing our boundaries, we find more ease in our daily lives. This is something my clients report to me as a result of their sessions. If you’re curious to see if that would work for you, come check out my services in either the one on one or group sessions.

How Touch Improves Your Health

Touch can be healthy in a lot of ways. We know that babies that don’t get touch can die, and children in low touch environment can develop cognitive and physical deficits that follow them the rest of their lives.

But how and why does touch make such a difference?

A lot of it has to do with the body’s relaxation response.

Did you know your body had a relaxation response? We don’t talk about it much.

We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response, the state in which the body release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Have you ever heard stories about people lifting cars off their loved ones in  crisis? That’s stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol at work, and we get pretty excited about the impact those substances can have on us. Strength, endurance, lowered sensitivity to pain – all of those things are valuable in our broader society. And as long as we’re using those stress hormones to fuel these sorts of efforts, they aren’t bad for us.

Problem is, a lot of the things that stress us out today aren’t and can’t be resolved through physical labor. We aren’t generally running away from predators in a jungle, or trying to clean up after a mudslide, or other tasks that take a lot of physical energy and strength. We’re sitting at a computer, or talking to a customer, or reading the news on our phones, which doesn’t give those stress hormones a function in the body.

Now stress hormones are a bit like teenagers; full of energy and strength, but if you make them sit around with nothing to do they might cause some trouble. In the case of these substances, the trouble they cause is called inflammation. If you have a lot of inflammation, it can become chronic. Chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, and a host of other issues.

Touch helps to trigger the relaxation response, which is created by the parasympathetic nervous system and also called the “rest and digest” response. That one doesn’t get the sort of air time that the fight or flight response gets, but it’s important of for your overall health. If you don’t figure out how to help the body relax, it’s going to cause problems.

There are lots of ways to help the body relax, touch and cuddling isn’t the only option, but it might be an option that you haven’t tried yet. The Holding Space office is set up to facilitate relaxation. We have designed everything from the lighting to the furniture to the fishtank to the music to help people relax. Even having an office at all is unusual in the world of professional cuddling, but we wanted to take that step to help our clients have a space away from stress triggers (like your chores or work) while still being comfortable and welcoming.

Touch also increases the immune response in other ways, increasing the number of white blood cells in the body and the presence of natural killer (NK) cells. These NK cells are the ones that go after germs and viruses in your system to keep them from making you sick.

Between these responses, the body clearly responds positively to safe and nurturing touch. If you don’t have a good source of it in your life now, you can get those needs met in an ethical way at Holding Space. Whether that means a one on one appointment, or a visit to one of our group snuggle sessions, I hope you’ll support your own health by giving it a try.

Getting More Touch

Last week, I wrote about the physical and psychological benefits of touch. This week, I want to talk about how you can get more touch into your life.

There are lots of options. One is to work with a professional.  Massage is one common way to get more touch in your life. In fact, many of the studies I talked about used massage as the methodology of touch. And massage is great – but also, not everybody loves it. Professional cuddling provides the benefits of touch with a slightly different purpose. When I work with clients to provide therapeutic touch, I don’t come into the session with an agenda about what parts of them I plan to touch. A cuddle is a collaboration – I create an experience with my clients that serves their needs.

A lot of professionals besides massage therapists and professional cuddlers provide touch at some level to their clients. Hairdressers, estheticians, nail technicians, health care workers, various forms of alternative medicine like acupuncture. As Doctor Field says, “It seems that as our culture places more restrictions on touch within human relationships, alternative forms of touch become more popular. It is as if we needed a minimum of touch for our emotional well-being and physical wellness, so we find acceptable ways and sometimes functional ways (e.g. going to the hairdresser) of being touched.

But you don’t necessarily need to go to a professional to get more touch in your life. You can increase the amount of touch you share with your peers, and there are even some practices you can do by yourself that work pretty much the same way as touch in your body.

Self Touch

Let’s talk next about some of the things you can do that help you get the benefits of touch without actually having to interact with another human. Being aware of these techniques can help make it more comfortable to approach others for touch because they help reinforce the idea that we can get our needs met even if someone else tells us no.

Solo snuggling is an effective way to create a sense of comfort and nurturing. I use the word snuggling because you can snuggle up with a blanket or a pillow or a sweater, and not need another human to be part of the equation.

One of the keys to effective touch seems to be moderate pressure. Light pressure, more of a tickling touch, simply doesn’t seem to have the same benefits. A focus on the heart area is generally helpful. Pressing the flat of your hand into your collarbone region for 20 seconds or so will create a burst of oxytocin. Oxytocin is useful stuff – we have heard about it as the cuddle hormone or the love hormone or the bonding hormone. It’s the stuff that creates the strong bond between a newborn and its mother, especially during breast feeding. Interestingly, it seems to only work for that purpose when you already feel safe with the person who’s touching you.

Any sort of compression tends to help relax you. Weighted blankets are becoming more popular, because they can provide this compression. In the yoga classes I teach, we sometimes place a sandbag on our bellies while we breathe to create that sense of compression. Any object that weighs enough to make you aware of its presence will work for this purpose.

Another way to create sensation in the body is through some gentle stretching. If you stretch your arms toward the ceiling and then bend to the side, creating a curve with the body, you’re effectively snuggling one side of your body while stretching the other side. Literally giving yourself a hug stretches behind your shoulder blades, where tension is often stored. Be sure to do both sides…you want to evenly stretch your shoulders. Any sort of twist provides a hug for your insides. Again, be sure to do both sides, so that you get all the stretch even on both sides.

Another practice that provides the benefits of touch is from the traditional Indian system of medicine called Ayurveda – it’s skin brushing. You take a dry brush, and work it over your skin. The purists say you must always brush toward your heart, because that’s the direction that will help the most in purging the lymphatic system.

One last option is tapping. There’s a whole science around this, as well – but the basics are pretty simple. Moderate stimulation of the arms and collarbone and face area. It has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety. Remember that cortisol is released in the body to give it the energy to do something? So tapping gives you something to do with that a energy to keep it from turning into anxiety. It isn’t as strenuous as fighting or ripping all the carpets out of your flooded house -but it’s a lot more active than sitting still.

Social Touch

Now, I’d like to talk a little about how you can get more touch into your lives with your friends and neighbors. One of the biggest barriers to that is that people sometimes wonder what you “really” want from the touch you’re asking for.

Honestly, one of the most common questions I address about my own work with therapeutic touch is whether it’s “really” a thinly veiled form of sex work. It’s not, by the way – and one of the key benefits of that distinction is that I help people distinguish between touch and sex.

I understand that we live in a world that suspects that any touch might be sexual – but we know that suspicion to be wrong. In your experience of life, is it not true that sometimes when you need a hug the most, sex is the furthest thing from your mind. In situations where tragedy or stress is present, touch can provide comfort, and sex isn’t really what we’re after. Think about funerals and sitting with friends who’ve received catastrophic information and are trying to process it. Sometimes there literally are no words, and in those times, we often turn to touch to try and bridge that space between ourselves and those we love.

The first piece of advice I have for you in getting more human touch into your life is to be very clear about what you’re looking for. One of the biggest fears people have when engaging in physical touch is that it might “turn into” something different.

The second piece of advice I have for you in getting more human touch into your life is to overcommunicate. At the group snuggle events I hold at my office, we use a specific phrase to respond to people who tell us no – and that phrase is “thank you for taking care of yourself.” It can sound a little snarky to people – but the intent is really to be completely sincere. I don’t want to hug anybody who doesn’t want to hug me. (Have you ever been hugged when you don’t want to be? It’s miserable! Who wants to impose that on another person?) I sincerely want to know if the people I offer a hug or an arm around a shoulder or a full on cuddle to are actually interested in taking me up on that offer – and if they’re not, I am grateful that they let me know.

Now, I’m in a position to be sincerely grateful for that. I know that my touch needs are gonna get met. My personal situation, my social circle, and my business all work together to make sure that happens. Other people might not have the same privilege – and real problems tend to start when someone assumes they are owed touch. That’s why we started with ways to take the edge off your own touch needs – because that’s completely under your control.

Once you have clear in your own mind what you’re looking for, and you have come to peace with the idea that the person you ask might say no – and that their no, if it arrives, will be a gift to you – then you are in a position to ask for touch.


How Touch Makes Your Life Better

Touch is the first sense to develop, not only in humans, but in all animal species. And since you developed your sense of touch, you have never been without it. You can close your eyes and pretend you have no sense of sight. You can catch a cold and experience not having a sense of smell. You can plug your ears and experience not having a sense of hearing. You aren’t always using your sense of taste. But you are always touching something.

Maybe this is why touch has the longest definition of any word in the Oxford English Dictionary. When we talk about our senses, we don’t talk about our seeings or our hearings or our smellings – we talk about our feelings – and maybe that speaks to the fundamental nature of touch.

Touch and Human Development

David Linen, who wrote a book called Touch, says “Touch is not optional for human development.” Babies who don’t get nurturing touch flat up die, in the most extreme circumstances. And if they don’t die, they have some lasting effects. A doctor named Saul Schanberg put babies who had been touch deprived into an MRI – where he saw evidence of stunted growth in their shinbones. That evidence will be there the rest of their lives.

Children who lack nurturing touch also have lower IQs – sometimes dramatically lower. But there’s good news in this research as well. If those children are adopted into a nurturing environment within a couple of years, they will completely recover the IQ they lost due to the lack of touch.

These same effects show up in adults.  Touch has physical and cognitive benefits. Let’s talk about some of those.

Stress / Cortisol Reduction

Touch reduces stress chemicals in the body. The stress chemical most often studied in this research is cortisol – and cortisol is pretty nasty stuff. It’s associated with heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal problems eczema, asthma, and depression. It seems a little weird that our body would create such a toxic substance, doesn’t it?

In Bessel VanDerKolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score, he explains that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are generated in the body to prepare it for action. Fight or flight – these are both physical actions. Expending the energy required to recover from a crisis is a physical action. All of those people in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico who have spent the last month cleaning up after that series of hurricanes – they’re all doing a bunch of physical work to return their lives and their communities to a livable state. The stress they’re under is going to good use.

But the stress of modern life is often delivered to us on our devices or through a television screen, that may involve people we will never meet and circumstances we’ll never take physical action to resolve. In these cases, the cortisol that our bodies helpfully secrete to get us ready for action doesn’t have anything helpful to do. So, like a bored teenager, it wreaks havoc.

We can dissipate that cortisol, and the other stress hormones that go with it, with touch. This doesn’t appear to be particularly related to the physical exertion of touch – these studies were largely done on people lying around getting a massage, so they weren’t expending exercise-levels of exertion. But the touch they were receiving had an immediate effect of reducing the cortisol level in their body.

Immune Function

Touch also improves the function of our immune system. It increases the number of Natural Killer cells, or NK cells, in the body. These cells are the front line of the immune system, and more of them show up when we are touched. Immunoglobin A, an antibody that plays a critical role in the immune function of mucous membranes, is also increased in response to touch.

Cognitive Function

Those are some of the things touch does for our body…but it also plays a role in our cognitive function. Scientists think that humans evolved social relationships, at least in part, to distribute the problem solving across multiple brains. Touching another human tells our brains that they have help, and that seems to take some of the load off and free it up for other cognitive functions.

In a study, they had people hold hands with strangers, or with someone they know and trust. It turns out that, as Dr. James Coan from the University of Virgina says, “Holding the hand of really anyone, it makes your brain work a little less hard in coping.” Some scientists believe that we developed social relationships so that we could distribute the work of problem solving among various brains…and these findings support that conclusion. If your brain gets a visceral signal that there’s another brain in the area, it relaxes enough to perform a little better.

In that study that compared touch with relaxation, we found that relaxation puts you in a sleepy state, whereas touch can relax people into an alert state. In that state, people who had been touched were able to complete math problems twice as quickly as they did before the intervention – and with half the number of errors. So, for this study, they took people and had them do some math problems (adding the sum total of 7 randomly generated numbers). Then they had the intervention, either touch or relaxation without touch. Then they got another group of 7 numbers to add up.

Why Humans

Touch from a human is different than the touch you are experiencing right now as your feet touch the floor or your legs touch the chair. Our brains are very good at distinguishing a touch with emotion from a similar but non-emotional touch. A recent study by Matt Hertenstein, right up the road at DePauw University in Greenfield, shows that we can identify people’s emotions when they touch us, even when we can’t see their face or other body language.

Even when we don’t remember being touched, touch from another human influences our behavior. Studies show that students whose teachers touch their shoulders perform better, and diners whose waiter touches their hand when they deliver the check tip more. In one study, a researcher approached someone in a phone booth and asked if they’d found change in the phone when they arrived. Subjects who received a touch on the arm from the researcher are significantly more likely to return the quarter than those who did not – even when they did not remember being touched.

Getting More Touch

I’ll talk more in next week’s post about how to get more touch into your daily life – but it probably won’t surprise anybody that I suggest booking an appointment with a professional cuddler as one of the possible techniques. Professional cuddlers are an excellent way to find ethically sourced nurturing and emotional labor.

Cuddling and Creativity

Two people cuddling

Creativity is a sort of magic – or at least some of it is. If you study creativity, you find out that there are two types, Apollonian and Dionysian. If you know Greek mythology, you may remember that Apollo was the god of rational thinking and order, while Dionysus was the god of wine and dance, emotions and instincts. The phrase “write drunk, edit sober” sums up this divide pretty neatly.

Apollonian creativity is based on the need to keep grinding. Editing, polishing, carving, sanding…finalizing the work so that it contains precisely what you want it to contain. Milton Glasser described this sort of creativity by saying

“Creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”

You can boost this sort of creativity by using stimulants. It’s no coincidence, then, that the industrial revolution showed up in our culture about the same time the breakfast beverage of choice changed from beer to tea or coffee.

As you might expect, cudding isn’t a great boost to this sort of creativity (though it could be a nice reward for sticking with things.) But that’s not to say it doesn’t help with creative output overall. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said; “Perhaps the most important duality that creative persons are able to integrate is being open and receptive on the one hand, and focused and hard-driving on the other.” If Apollonian creativity is the focused and hard-driving part, how then can we help people get to the open and receptive part?

The open and receptive brain state that correlates with Dionysian creativity is called a hyponagogic state. Your brain waves are at 8-12 Hz, they’re called Alpha Waves, and it feels a little like you’re floating. It’s that state you get into when you’re half asleep, or daydreaming…or cuddling!

This is the state where creative breakthroughs are made, from Archimedes figuring out how to solve a math problem as he was stepping into a bath, to those ideas that float into your head when you’re falling asleep.

Scientists think this happens, in part, because the world we live in is so complex that the brain needs to see it in two different ways at the same time. The left hemisphere of the brain handles denotation or the literal meaning of things. The right hemisphere of the brain handles connotation, or the symbolic meaning of things. Both are required to solve really complex problems. Getting them to work together – that is the part where the cuddling comes in.

By relaxing the flow of information between the sides of the brain, we can create an opportunity for insights to arise. Scientists can see a shift in the brain waves slightly before you make an insightful leap. (The study used riddles. For example, “I have two US coins whose total value is thirty cents. One of the coins is not a nickel. What are the two coins?” When you figure out that it’s a quarter and a nickel because one of them is not a nickel but the other one is, you’ve had a burst of insight.) Your brain waves shift enough for science to measure about 8 seconds before you figure that out. (Okay, so that example is a pretty old one, and it might not have taken you the whole 8 seconds to puzzle it out, but you get the idea, right?)

This Dionysian creativity part happens when your brain relaxes. If you’re trying to solve a tough problem, one that feels like it has you stumped, one of the best ways is to step away from the problem and relax your brain and just let the solution come to you. You’ve probably had that experience, when a tough problem solved itself while you were taking a walk or a shower or thinking about something completely different.

The challenge, then, is HOW do you relax your brain. There are lots of ways to do that. Meditation, spending time in nature (watching patterns like waves, grass rippling in wind, open flames, or swaying tree leaves helps). You know what else helps? CUDDLING!

How would cuddling help, you ask? Because it relaxes you. For most people, moderate intensity touch reduces heart rate and blood pressure. It also increases cognitive capacity and reduces anxiety. People who hold a stranger’s hand before they answer math problems get more math problems right. People who hold a stranger’s hand before speaking in public report less anxiety about speaking in public. The research points to a physiological response to touch (probably mediated through the vagus nerve and the oxytocin response) that helps people in a variety of ways – including helping them to relax their brain.

Nobody has studied breakthrough creativity and cuddling – yet. But what we do know about the way our brains work points to a strong possibility that that stubborn problem you can’t quite crack might just cough up a solution if you manage to relax your brain for a few minutes. Cuddling isn’t the only way you could do that, but it’s probably something you haven’t tried yet. Come check it out.