Touch Deprivation and Violent Behavior

Some laws still make it a crime for consenting adults to engage in various types of harmless physical touching. These laws appear to be carryovers from Puritanism, which H. L. Mencken defined as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.”

Modern science indicates that wise laws would promote more consensual, pleasurable, and harmless touching instead of discouraging such physical contact. For instance, research by neuropsychologist James W. Prescott shows that insufficient amounts of physical affection may be a cause of high violence rates in the U.S.

For many years, Dr. Prescott was a research scientist and administrator at the National Institutes of Health. He believes that touch deprivation is harmful to people’s physical and psychological well-being.

According to Prescott, handling and body contact are essential “nutrients” for the developing brain in humans and other animals. He says depriving infants of physical affection can cause neurological dysfunction that leads to abnormal and harmful behavior.

The undesirable conduct can include depression during infancy and violent acts later, autistic or withdrawn behaviors, inappropriate stimulus-seeking activities, and increased vulnerability to alcohol and drug abuse. Prescott says these acts are sometimes attempts to compensate for sensory deprivation or loss experienced early in life.

Prescott also states that, for persons of all ages, body pleasure and violent behavior have a mutually inhibiting relation. The presence of one actually impedes emergence of the other. He reports that when the brain’s pleasure circuits are activated, the violence circuits close down, and vice versa.

After obtaining those findings, Prescott examined data collected by cultural anthropologists. He wanted to determine whether there are correlations between physical affection and rates of violence among cultures.

In analyzing data from 49 societies, Prescott found lower violence rates in cultures having high levels of infant physical affection and high acceptance of sexual expression. On the other hand, violence rates were elevated in cultures that were not very physically affectionate toward infants or were highly sexually repressed.

In history, the sexual repression of Nazi Germany is consistent with Prescott’s findings. Hitler lived a relatively ascetic life and was largely asexual. But he unleashed more violence in the world than probably any other person.

Moreover, the Nazis outlawed the purchase of contraceptives, confiscated sexual materials, burned to the ground the world’s first center for the study of human sexuality, forbade other research on sexuality, segregated boys from girls in the German Youth Labor Camps, prohibited sexual entertainment, banned nudism, and sent homosexuals to concentration camps.

Besides international comparisons, Prescott cites a study of child abusers to support his views on the relationship between physical affection and rates of violence. This study revealed that parents who abused their children were invariably deprived of physical affection themselves during childhood. The study also rated the adult sex life of the parents as extremely poor.

In further research, Prescott observed that societies having the highest levels of physical affection have low rates of theft, minimal physical punishment of children, and low levels of religious participation.

Other health benefits of physical affection are reported by Dr. Harold Voth, senior psychiatrist at the prestigious Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. He asserts: “It has been shown scientifically that people who are mentally run-down and depressed are far more prone to sickness than those who are not. Hugging can lift depression – enabling the body’s immune system to become tuned up. Hugging breathes fresh life into a tired body and makes you feel younger and more vibrant.”

Tiffany Field, director of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, gives a similar report. She describes a study in which children who received massage twice a week showed decreased amounts of depression. They also had significantly less anxiety than the study’s control group.

Based on his own research, Prescott concludes: “Physically affectionate human societies are highly unlikely to be physically violent.”

Prescott’s findings mean that an answer to the problem of violent crime may be to increase the amount of physical affection and physical pleasure in society – which is the opposite of what puritanical laws tend to do.

That solution sounds much more pleasant and less expensive than building and staffing more prisons.