The Genetic Roots of Massage

Genetic Roots of Massage ImageOften overlooked in the ongoing quest for a coherent identity for the massage profession are its evolutionary roots. In other words, what is the genetic basis for what we now call massage?

In the animal kingdom the general impulse to touch one another is termed social touch and is not only clearly evident in our primate ancestors but has also been identified in insects, birds, bats and virtually all mammals. That means that social touch has been hard wired into our genomic heritage for over 200 million years. What part of social touch gave rise to massage?

In primates, social touch can be divided into three overlapping functional categories: nurturing, grooming, and mating.

    • Nurturing touch originated from the need of infant mammals to be fed and protected.
    • Social grooming evolved for hygienic reasons, the need to keep the hair, fur, feathers and other skin coverings clean and free of leaves, twigs, insects, parasites and other objects.
    • The reproductive/mating instinct is fundamental to all animals for propagation of their species.


Other overlapping functions of the varieties of social touch are also important. All three are examples of bonding behavior in its broadest sense of the word. Not only does touch tie parents to their offspring, mates to each other and individuals to the family or tribe, but touch has two other deep existential functions that often get overlooked. Touch creates a subjective sensation in  recipients that validates their unique individuality (bonding to myself) while, at the same time, it provides a “reality check” of their objective presence in and connection to the exterior environment. In an era of increasingly virtual relationships both of these benefits take on a new significance.

Grooming and nurturing kinds of touch overlap with mating touch in the forms of preening and affection, as noted in the illustration. Grooming and mating touch in some species, such as hominids, are also overlap when they are used for conflict resolution or reconciliation.

Wither professional massage?

Genetic RootsAll massage done today by trained practitioners can trace its roots to at least one of these instinctual categories touching.

While every massage can be said to have a nurturing component (as described above in the discussion of bonding), nurturing touch is specifically the progenitor for what could be called comfort massage. These massage practitioners either provide massage services or massage training for populations such as the very young, the very old and the infirm. Examples include infant massage, geriatric massage and hospice massage.

Next, the grooming instinct has birthed the largest category of professional massage services: the personal care massage.

Parents or other family members are the primary groomers of their infants and children. They attend to the hygiene of their hair, nails, ears, nose, eyes and, most importantly, of their skin. They bathe and anoint their young with oils, lotions, and powders and, in this interaction, give them their first experience of the benefits of interpersonal touch.

As our children get older and more independent they begin to assume many of these grooming responsibilities for themselves. But society has also developed a whole economic sphere that can perform these functions called personal care services and its occupational categories include:

    • Hair stylists
    • Manicurists
    • Skin Care Specialists
    • Makeup artists
    • Massage practitioners

Most professional massage being provided today is personal care massage and it is easy to argue that it is more necessary than ever. With the emergence of higher levels of consciousness and more complex social systems, humans have the dubious distinction of being the only primate that can choose to override its natural instincts and live without interpersonal touch. Indeed, in many contemporary cultures, touching is now demonized, restricted or outright prohibited. Most people walk around today with a touch deficit. Personal care massage is one of the few ways that this primal need for touch can be safely met.

Finally, professional sexual massage services are a clear outgrowth of the mating touch instinct and, where they are not illegal, these days are often euphemistically described as “adult” or “tantric” massage.

Implications for our professional identity

Health care massage is the label that most massage schools, associations prefer for massage services. However, using touch techniques to ameliorate pain or injuries is actually a second order of massage services once removed from instinctual nurturing or grooming touch. It could be argued that the genetic roots of health care massage are  in self-touch, i.e. rubbing my sore spot to make it feel better. It wasn’t until some primates (and most particularly human primates) developed a capacity for empathy (feeling the pain of another) that interpersonal touch for relief became conceivable, i.e. rubbing your sore spot to make it feel better.

That’s not to say that health care or wellness massage can’t have the same benefits of comfort and personal care massage. It can and often does. However, it is the difference between eating chicken soup because you are hungry and eating (or feeding someone) chicken soup to cure what ails you. The former is instinctual and the latter requires a higher level of intention.

That distinction is important and often overlooked. The best use of massage is not to act as an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff (health care treatment), but rather to be the guard rail at the top of the cliff (health maintenance). Conflating (personal care) “massage” with (health care) “massage therapy” over the past 30 years has, unfortunately, resulted in the wide spread impression that massage is only useful when something has gone wrong. If we want to have a coherent identity for professional massage, it will have to include, but make a distinction between, both massage and massage therapy.

If you have any comments or thoughts about the genetic roots of our profession, please share them below.

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What we need to know about touch

What We Need To Know About TouchSkin stimulation (touching) is essential to maintaining physical, psychological and social well-being, according to an ever-increasing body of scientific literature. Since touch is the fundamental tool through which massage professionals interact with those who pay for our services, it seems obvious that we should have the deepest understanding of touch and touching. So, how do the skilled touch professions become the recognized experts on the subject of touch and touching?

I would like to propose an outline for a comprehensive body of knowledge about the sense of touch. I believe the skilled touch professions, as a community, already has access to this information, just not in one place. There still is no comprehensive textbook on touch for the massage profession or any other profession for that matter.

While every practitioner does not need to be an expert in every aspect of touch and touching, every practitioner should be familiar with all of the elements present in a touch experience. Obviously, that means that all schools and teachers of professional touch should be able to address these topics. Think of the following categories as chapters in that as yet unwritten textbook.

  • The evolutionary development of touching: Our genetic heritage
  • The anatomical structures and physiology of skin
  • The developmental requirements for human touching
  • The variety of cultural attitudes toward touching
  • The subjective perception of the initiator of touch
  • The subjective perception of the receiver of touch
  • The intention of the initiator of touch
  • The psycho-social-physical benefits of touching
  • The mechanics of touching
  • The manifestations of touching
  • The history of professional touching
  • Touch research
  • The institutional regulation of touching

Clearly, there is a lot to know about touch and touching. It is also obvious that schools which train skilled touch professionals tend to emphasize only a few of the categories above, in particular the mechanics of touching. That is not surprising for three reasons.

  1. Both academia that researches skilled touch and the vocational schools that teach skilled touch have been hampered by the touch-phobic milieu of the culture.
  2. As a result, academic interest in touch research has lagged far behind the attention paid to the other four primary senses.
  3. And, without the science, that comprehensive textbook on touch referred to earlier has not been written.

Fortunately, all of that has begun to change dramatically in the past generation as, in particular, the massage industry has successfully legitimized a place for skilled touch in the modern world. Primary credit for that success has to be given to the public and private massage associations, massage schools, their practitioners and businesses. While we don’t yet have a touch-positive culture, we are definitely moving in that direction. That will continue to spur interest in touch research and eventually result in the development of those crucial textbooks.

What do you think a comprehensive body of knowledge about touch and touching should include? Please add your comments below.

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Why Do We Touch?

Why Do We Touch_imgOne important characteristic of all touching is the intention of the person initiating the touching. Much of the time the intention behind the touch is not conscious or it is presumed. However, adding conscious intention adds a deeper level of connection to the touch interaction.

Take, for example, a simple handshake upon meeting another person. The intention of a handshake is to greet the other person, to make a social connection, to show trust and respect. As a social habit it is automatic and generally unconscious.

Now imagine a handshake from someone who really consciously shakes your hand, feels the touch of your hand as a singular experience, and perhaps even emphasizes that consciousness by taking your hand in both of theirs and looking you directly in the eyes. Immediately the quality of the relationship changes. It is more intimate, more deeply connecting, more engaging. A great part of the charisma of famous people like Bill Clinton is often attributed to the great intentionality they bring to their handshakes and hugs.

All touching falls on a spectrum from harmful to neutral to positive touching. Below is an evolving list of non-harmful intentions of a touch initiator with particular thanks, to Janet Courtney, Director of Developmental Play & Attachment Therapies. The core of this list emerged from a survey she co-developed with Angela Siu for a study entitled: Practitioner Attitudes of Touch in Working with Children and Families in Child Counseling and Play Therapy.

Initiating Intentions of Touching

  • Accidental touching: Brushing up against someone as you pass on the street or on a bus generally has no intention or purpose and would be considered neutral touch.
  • Touching for greeting and departure: Handshakes, hugs, and kisses signal different levels of intimacy, depending on the culture. Sudanese greet by putting hands on the shoulder of the other person.
  • Attentional touching: Touching someone’s arm (or hand, or shoulder) allows the initiator to direct the focus of the receiver for greater attention or emphasize.
  • Assistive touching: Guiding another’s hand or body through space is often an essential part of teaching body-based skills such as dance, massage, playing an instrument. It also includes the rehabilitative learning of skills that have been lost through injury or disease.
  • Reinforcing touching: A pat on the back can strengthen a particular behavioral or emotional response.
  • Playful touching: Tickling and “roughhousing” are common examples of touching that creates greater connection and non-sexual intimacy. The growing movement of adult “cuddle clubs” could be included here as well as in the next two categories.
  • Nurturing touching: The fundamental need for physical contact, skin stimulation and security are all addressed by nurturing touching. In babies and children this is critical to forming healthy attachments.
  • Affectionate touching: This touching is initiated as an expression of care, comfort, and reassurance.
  • Restraining touching: This touching is initiated to prevent the person being touched from harming themselves or others and most commonly occurs in parent to child touching.
  • Cathartic touching: Unconditional intentional touch such as holding, cradling, hugging or massage can allow people to access to their vulnerable personality parts and can facilitate a release of repressed emotions. This is often used in cunjunction with talk therapy.
  • Grooming: This category includes cleaning, trimming, massaging or decorating the hair, skin, ears, teeth, fingernails, and toenails of another person. Children usually receive this touch from their parents and adults from professional groomers.
    • Professional massage: There are well over a hundred various modalities of massage and bodywork with probably as many different intentions. However, in general, the skilled touch professions tend to fall into three categories of intention: Systemic, which promote relaxation and well-being; Corrective, which tend to focus on remediating musculoskeletal problems; and Eclectic, which is every other intention not included in the first two.
  • Erotic touching: It is interesting to note that there is a spectrum of erotic intention that ranges from spontaneous to structured touch. Cultural movements such as “No means no!”, by requiring permission and negotiation before any touch even occurs move at least the initiation of touch closer to the calculated end of the spectrum.

This spectrum of spontaneity mentioned above can also be overlaid on all of the touching intentions outlined and is an important consideration. The more structure there is to the touch interaction, the safer it tends to be. There is little doubt that one of the main drivers of the massage profession is the fact that, at its best, it provides an environment for safe, unconditional touch. The cultural pendulum is clearly swinging back in the direction of setting clear boundaries for touch. Let us not be distressed by the move toward more calculated touch in our relationships. I suspect it is just the first step toward creating a truly touch positive world where healthy, spontaneous touch is ultimately the new norm.

Please add your thoughts and suggestions about these categories of touch intention below.

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Where Do We Get Touch?

{A World of Touch}Skin stimulation (touch) is essential to the development and maintenance of health and well being in every human. Why then has it been so neglected as a subject for legitimate inquiry except perhaps by poets?  The other four senses have garnered reams of research, had university  departments dedicated to them and whole occupations given over to the cause of hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling. But where is the profession dedicated to touching? Touch is truly the “orphan sense.”

Fortunately, that is changing. In the past 20 years, particularly with the rise of neuro-psychology, the primary sense of touch is finally beginning to get its due. As it does there is an increasing need to organize our thinking about touch. One useful tool would be a taxonomy of where touching occurs.

This first effort only includes sources of positive touch where whole person health and well being is enhanced, rather than inhibited. It is also not a catalog of touching intentions. Check here for that list. Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comment area below to make this version as comprehensive as possible.

A Taxonomy of Touching Contexts

This taxonomy has four top level categories:

  1. Human to Human
  2. Animal to Human
  3. Machine to Human
  4. Environment Skin Stimulation

The bulk of the detail below delineates the first category. In later iterations of this taxonomy the other three categories could be fleshed out more thoroughly.

Human to Human

Occupational Touching–Primary

  • Massage and bodywork Practitioners
  • Personal Care (Grooming) Services
    Hair Dressers, Stylists, Cosmetologists
    Skin Care Specialists
    Manicurist, Pedicurist

I have separated these two categories as virtually all states regulate them with separate legislation. However, there is little question that the bulk of massage services currently being provided fall into the personal care category while only a minority of massage services are actual health care services in the traditional treatment sense of the term.

Occupational Touching–Adjunctive

In these occupations touch is inevitable but not primary.

  • Health Care Professionals
    Physicians Assistants
    Physical Therapist
  • Allied Health Care Workers
    Respiratory Therapists
    Radiologic Technicians
    Psychiatric Aides/Technicians
    All other Aides and Assistants
    Occupational Therapist
    Recreational Workers
    Recreational Therapists
    Rehabilitation Workers
    Hospice Workers
    Home Health and Personal Care Aides
  • Athletic and Fitness Trainers
  • Pre-school Childcare Workers
  • Social Workers
  • Professional Dancers
  • K-12 Educators
  • Special Education Teachers

Social touching

  • Family and Friends
    Hugs and kisses
    Comfort for the ill and dying
  • Structured touching groups
    Massage Exchange groups
    Snuggle/Cuddle/Hugging groups
  • Teammate touching in sports
  • Dancing
  • Workplace touching


  • Unconscious
    Rubbing or holding for pain relief
  • Intentional

Erotic touch

  • Personal
  • Social
  • Professional

Human to Animal

Physical contact with animals has many of the same psycho-social benefits as human to human contact because it stimulates the release of the same stress reducing and bonding hormones. In addition, according to Science Daily, a “growing body of research now documents the [therapeutic] value of the human-animal bond in child development, elderly care, mental illness, physical impairment, dementia, abuse and trauma recovery, and the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and adults.”

Machine to Human

Machines have long been used to stimulate our skin under the guise of a wide range of massage devices. Everything from electric massage chairs to vibrators to non-electric massage tools are included in this category.

Environmental Skin Stimulation

Our skin is being continuously being stimulated by the environment surrounding the body. That includes the air, our clothes, water that flows across our skin or that we immerse in. There are also small but growing movements promoting the awareness and value of direct skin stimulation with the earth ( How ironic that we now have to have organization to remind us how good it feels to walk on the beach or in the grass.

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Cuddle Clubs Monetize Touch

{Animal Cuddle}Professional massage practitioners are not the only ones who make money touching. A growing movement gaining traction in our disembodied world brings groups of unrelated people together for non-erotic touch interaction.

Variously called cuddle clubs, cuddle parties or snuggle parties this phenomenon now has its books, YouTube videos, groups (75 and counting), and commercial ventures that are monetizing physical affection. The latter include Cuddle Party (already in 17 states and provinces), Cuddle Up to Me (a retail store in Portland, OR), and The Snuggle Buddies (a registry of independent snuggles).

An early version of social touch clubs were massage trade evenings pioneered by Gay men over two decades ago as one response to the AIDS crisis. As the world become increasingly touch-phobic, in typical fashion, the LGBT community responded with a safe, creative, pro-touch solution to the the prevailing fears. More recently, erotic touch clubs have also emerged out of various subcultures in the USA (think Burning Man) and more blatantly in some European cities such as London. Caveat emptor: if you see the word “Tantric” in any advertising it is euphemism for erotic touch and cuddlers beware.

The beauty of all of these groups is that they are very explicit about touch boundaries as they begin to parse the fine line between sensuality and sexuality. Contemporary culture will never overcome the touch negativity of the past centuries until non-sexual touching can be made safe. Strictly enforced policies address what to wear, alcohol and drugs, scents and hygiene, conversation, and, most importantly, how to initiate, ask for, accept and refuse touch.

Self-organized cuddle and massage clubs generally charge a nominal fee for the evening or for joining, while the commercial clubs and group parties might run $25 for 90-minutes. Individual one-to-one services are priced $60 and hour on up, depending on location.

Many of the group facilitators and professional snugglers are also massage practitioners. This is an great example of how the massage community is slowly beginning to embrace their role as touch educators and advocates. If there is not a cuddle community in your area, start one through or join one of the commercial services expanding nationally. The more educated that people are about the joy of non-erotic touch, the more likely they are to appreciate the value of a professional massage.


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