Touch in Acupuncture Education

Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc, professor in the College of Classical Chinese Medicine at NUNM, shares his thoughts on the importance of developing the skill of touch.

I’ve been rereading Deane Juhan’s book, Touched by the Goddess: The Physical, Psychological, & Spiritual Powers of Bodywork. What a title!! And what amazing writing. There is no one in the field of bodywork with his skill in wordsmithing. It is pure pleasure to read his writing.

It was under-emphasized in my acupuncture education that touch, in and of itself, is worthy of consideration as a focus of training. I suspect touch is so much a part of our everyday experience—it is, after all, a big part of how we navigate our way through our environment—that it is easily overlooked and underappreciated.

Juhan mentions some interesting historical information that I had been unaware of. In the 19th century almost all infants put into orphanage care in the US died. Mortality was 98-99%. It breaks my heart to think about all of those innocent lives lost. The only touch these infants received was during feedings and when diapers were changed. Once sufficient staffing was added that allowed for cuddling and non-rushed loving touch, the infants started to survive. Who would have dreamed that touch was that vital, that, without it in sufficient quantity and quality, infants die—literally die.

As a species we require touch; without it our nervous systems do not develop as they should. Baby animals whose mothers typically lick them, when denied this licking, do not develop normal bowels and bladders and fail to learn to eliminate. In fact, these organs, when denied the licking of their mothers, burst and they quickly die.

A related topic is rhythmic touch. Chimps, when raised into adolescence without the experience of being rocked by their mothers, become violent 100% of the time. So, the quality of touch is important too. Obviously, not all touch is healing and leads to healthy development. We need not just touch but, rather, healthy and loving touch.

In Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin Ashley Montagu explains:
“Tactile stimulation appears to be a fundamentally necessary experience for the healthy behavioral development of the individual…The raw sensation of touch as stimulus is vitally necessary for the physical survival of the organism. In that sense it may be postulated that the need for tactile stimulation must be added to the repertoire of basic needs in all vertebrates…”

That gives us a lot to think about when we unpack it and think about its ramifications for our work in Traditional East Asian Medicine. The great acupuncturists I have studied with all have remarkable hands: Dr. Shudo, Iwashina Anryu, Zhu Ming-qing, Kobayashi Shoji, Shimamura Tsuyoshi and others. All of these practitioners could probably fill their day with patients if they only touched them for 15 minutes and used no needles at all—yes, their hands are that good, that comforting and healing.

Do we teach our students how to develop hands like this? I heard nothing at all about it in my studies. In fact, it took me many years of practice before I actually had the hands I needed. I believe it should be a core element in all of our training programs. Surgeons are serious about taking care of their hands, and we need to be equally so. If we are to needle our patients with sensitivity, then we require perceptive hands that are up to the task.

At NUNM, this mission has been adopted as a part of our program, so I can attest that it is a teachable skill. Our students graduate with remarkable hands. I know this because I am part of the exit exam team. In fact for three years I was the entire “team,” and in that role I felt the hands of every student as they assessed my abdomen and pulse and did ROM exams and so on. I was so happy (and continue to be) that we had succeeded in developing a healing touch in our students. If we can do it at NUNM, then other schools can as well. For the sake of our patients, we should do this at all of our schools.