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Massage Today
June, 2005, Vol. 05, Issue 06

The Soft Touch

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

Learning to trust your hands is not an easy task. You must learn to shut off your conscious, critical mind while you palpate for subtle changes in the body you are examining.

You must adopt an empirical attitude so that you can temporarily accept without question those perceptions that come into your brain from your hands.

- John Upledger3

In our technically oriented culture, we have become accustomed to relying on our instrument readouts and conscious reasoning. We can, in our wanderings, for example, routinely and accurately determine time and position from our communicating electronics. Vital signs of medical patients, once done periodically by a human, can now be continually taken by electronic sensors and monitored for changes by computers.

What we tend to forget is that our human bodies are covered with a network of tactile sensors numbering 6 million to 10 million in all,5 making us superb sensors in our own right. Equally forgotten is that our ability to integrate the ongoing stream of information from these sensors is beyond the capabilities of today's computers or of our conscious minds. Profound statements of our sensing and processing abilities come from a decade ago by dance/anatomy teachers Andrea Olsen and Caryn McHose8 and very recently by sensory scientist Martin Grunwald:5

"The somatosensory cortex of the cerebrum has a precise map representing sensory information from all parts of the body, and works in conjunction with the cerebellum of the brainstem to maintain a continuous, cumulative picture of the body's position in space. The cerebellum, in particular, is responsible for constant coordination and correction of posture, movement and muscle tone. Even more fascinating, it holds the image of where you just were, where you are now, and it projects where you will go next."8

"Our sense of touch also enables us to take the measure of our body's size and position. The parietal-cortex apparently combines millions of individual data points from the touch sensors in muscles, joints, tendons, and skin to create an internal picture of ourselves. Normally, people are very good at estimating how tall, heavy and broad they are, allowing them to duck sufficiently for a low doorway or turn sideways to slip through a narrow passageway."5

The subconscious "computational" processing that creates our body image from our sensors extends our responses to stimuli beyond direct reaction. The basis for meridian theory, for example, might lie as much in our processing of input as in our physical bodies. Grunwald and his group hypothesize that body image afflictions, such as anorexia nervosa, may lie partly within faulty integration of sensory information. Their research indicates that other touch-based (i.e., haptic) processing, such as drawing simple shapes from touch, may also be adversely affected by the underling dysfunction. Other paths of current research tie our sensory and neurological systems to our immune systems.9 The brain and immune system continuously signal each other, often along the same pathways, which may explain how sensory input and state of mind influences health.

Sensory research has also recently uncovered why being cuddled feels so good - human skin has a special network of nerves that stimulate a pleasurable response to stroking.10 Normal touch is transmitted to the brain through a network of fast-conducting nerves called myelinated fibers, which carry signals at 60 meters per second. But there is a second slow-conducting nerve network of unmyelinated fibers, called C-tactile (CT), the role of which was unknown. The CT network carries signals at just one meter per second. By examining the response of a woman who had lost the normal sense of touch, scientists were recently able to look at her responses to the C-tactile system. MRI scans of her brain revealed that brushing strokes activated insular region of the cerebral cortex associated with emotional response. The researchers concluded that the CT system may be important for emotional, hormonal and behavioral responses to tactile stimulation.

As sensory images, understanding anatomy via names and insertions is only one path, and perhaps not the optimal one. Olsen and McHose8 take the experiential path to learning about anatomy via touch and position, literally making use of sensory input rather than rote memorization. In her book, The Anatomy of Movement, Blandine Calais-Germain provides a dancer's dynamic view toward understanding muscles.2

The focus throughout the book is on anatomy not for its own sake as items to be memorized and recited, but in its functional relationship to the actual movements of the body in dance, exercise and other physical disciplines. I delight in teaching that a muscle, ever so gently activated against a resistance, suddenly takes on sharp form to our touch. The activated muscle, whether subscapularis or psoas, suddenly becomes "visible" to our searching fingers.

As sensory beings, we learn to understand the body by palpation - the soft touch of awareness and wonder.3 Our fingers and hands, via practice, learn to seek and find asymmetries and differences in range of motion and tissue texture.4 The benefits of practice don't come from mechanical practice of technique, but from performance with awareness of both the effort and of the actual results. The adjustment comes in first doing and then making a correction to our inner picture or body-sense and running through the process again. Practice should be done enough to solidify it yet stop before physical and mental fatigue undermines the efforts by decreasing attention, increasing response times, and recruiting less optimum patterns of muscle activation.

Ultimately, practice with attention takes one from inability, to perform a pattern of skilled actions, to slow conscious control of performance, to mixed conscious control of learning with use of already learned patterns, to unconscious performance in response to environmental stimuli and conscious wish. Learning of new movement and body usage patterns can temporarily disrupt similar existing patterns. It's as if the body experiences a short-term period of confusion about which pattern to use in a given situation. Teaching sports or deep tissue massage to existing practitioners of Swedish massage, for example, can result in feeling that well-known patterns feel a new uncertainness. The situation sorts itself out, resulting in both patterns being available for use. Research indicates that consolidation and integration of practice continues hours later during sleep.1

The greatest determinants of good work that I have seen are an attitude of humility, respect for the client to react individualistically rather than as the textbook predicted, and cumulative attention to sensory input and client responses. An initial sensory feeling of "groping in the dark" rather rapidly becomes knowledgeable palpation as we observe sensation, client response, and effects. Those who have learned from their clients and can organize what they have learned, have the potential to become teachers who can shorten the path for the attentive student.

Often the greatest learning comes not from what is written or recorded, but simply from watching a master worker move and interact with a client. Hours and facts memorized out of their context of use are the poorest training outcomes I've yet to find for the process of teaching others. That's something to sleep on, the approach with a soft touch.

Healthy muscles do not hurt when pressed upon!

- Camille A. Houde6


  1. Bower, Bruce, 2000: Certain Memories May Rest on a Good Sleep, Science News, 2 December.
  2. Calais-Germain, Blandine, 1993: Anatomy of Movement, Eastland Press, Seattle, ISBN 0-939-61617-3,
  3. Chaitow, Leon, 1997: Palpation Skills, Churchill Livingstone, page 6
  4. Greenman, Philip E, 1989: Principles of Manual Medicine, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins,
  5. Grunwald, Martin, 2004: Worlds of Feeling. Scientific American Mind, December.
  6. Korn, Cliff, 2004: private communication. Camille A. Houde, a Pfrimmer Therapist in Hyannis, MA in a workshop entitled "Working with the Lower Torso", given at the 11th AMTA New England Conference on March 13, 1994, stated that "Healthy muscles do not hurt when pressed upon!".
  7. Magill, Richard A., 1993: Motor Learning - Concepts and Applications, 4 th ed., Brown & Benchmark, ISBN 0-697-12643-9.
  8. Olsen, Andrea and Caryn McHose, 1994: Bodystories - A Guide to Experiential Anatomy, Station Hill Press, ISBN: 0-882-68106-0,
  9. Sternberg, Esther M., and Philip W. Gold, 2004: The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease, Scientific American Mind, December,
  10. Vince, Gaia, 2002: Scientists reveal the secret of cuddles, New Scientist, 28 July,

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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