Hands That Remember

By Marie-Christine Lochot , LMT
2015-1-7

Hands That Remember

By Marie-Christine Lochot , LMT
2015-1-7

Last spring, I took an advanced mentorship class in oncology massage lead by Tracy Walton. One of our assignments was to reflect on how to say goodbye to our terminally ill clients. As I was thinking about it, I realized that my hands never said goodbye. The memory of my departed clients is stored in my hands. I can recall the tone of their skin, the scars from surgeries and their overall body. My hands hold memory of their bodies, almost like a subcutaneous etching in my palms that I can access any time I want. It happens, of course, for clients that I see regularly. Those of you who have repeat clients might also experience that recall as soon as you place your hands on them at the beginning of the session. Memories of tissue tone and of tension in specific muscles come back to your mind.

But, do we really memorize with our hands? What is the physiology of touch? Can we increase that form of memory?

The sense of touch is part of the somatic sensory system. That system has nerve receptors which help us feel when our skin comes in contact with an object, a substance or a human body. The skin of our hands and fingers has an abundant and varied collection of nerve receptors. There are touch, pain and temperature receptors. When those sensors in our skin are stimulated, they are sending electrical impulses to our neurons whose job is to relay electrical chemical impulses. Those sensory neurons pass along the electrical pulse through a chain of neurons until it reaches our spinal cord. The spinal cord takes the signal and sends it to our brain which then translates the electrical signal. Our brain can combine messages from our sensory receptors. For instance, when you touch the forearm of a client who has tight muscles but also is cold, you are using both your pressure and temperature receptors.

Once the brain has received information about the touch, does it keep memory of it? Accordingly to a May 16, 2011, Science Daily article, neuroscientists of the Charite – Universitatssmedizin Berlin have documented deliberate control of touch sensations in human working memory. As per A. Baddeley in Pub Med, "The term working memory refers to a brain system that provides temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning and reasoning." The German researchers also found that the human brain is able to remember several touch sensations at the same time. The brain can consciously retrieve the touch as long as attention is directed on these touches. "A new touch does not erase the memory of a previous touch from working memory. Rather, new and old tactile memories can persist independently of each other, once a person's attention has registered the touches," said the study leader."

Furthermore, in a study published in 2011, a group of scientist at the University of Southern California found that if you look at an object, your brain processes what the object looks like but it also remembers what it feels like to touch it. The researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), brain scans and computers to study how memory and senses interact.

Science confirms that our brains remember what we touch and that we can retrieve that information. As massage therapists, being able to retrieve memories of prior touch of clients is very useful. It allows us to compare what we feel today with what we felt at previous sessions so we can use that information to formulate a session plan and adjust techniques if necessary. What can we do to increase that touch memory? According to the researchers, concentration is key and will increase the retrieval of information. This is another reason to be mindful and focused as we massage our clients. Developing our palpation skills is also paramount since identifying state of muscles and tissues will allow us to remember them better later.

As massage therapists, our hands are our primary tools. Our skilled hands soothe, nurture, melt away stress, relieve muscle tightness, pain and fatigue, but they also remember. Because of that memory we can help our clients in a more effective way but also keep remembrance of them forever.

"By touching a body, we touch every event it has experienced. For a few brief moments we hold all of a client's stories in our hands. We witness someone's experience of their own flesh, through some of the most powerful means possible: the contact of our hands, the acceptance of the body without judgment, and the occasional listening ear. With these gestures we reach across the isolation of the human experience and hold another person's legend..." said Tracy Walton.

Next time you start a massage, place your hands on your client and pause a second to retrieve your hand's memory. You might be surprised.