The Benefits of Tactile Stimulation in Cognitive and Athletic Performance
Written by Dr. Edythe Heus
Rev6 Founder – Los Angeles
Our sense of touch is fundamental to our lives and our connection with the world. It is the first sense that we develop, and it continues to support much of our learning and development as children.
As we grow older, however, we learn to rely much more on our other senses, primarily our vision and audition, taking touch for granted.
But without it, life as we know it would drastically change. We wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not we are holding something without seeing our hands grasp that object. Walking without stumbling will be nearly impossible, too, without the information coming from our feet as they interact with the ground.
Most of us won’t experience these changes in just a snap (by disease or injury, for example). But these will eventually happen to all of us, just to a lesser extent. By age 50, the number of touch receptors in our skin will be half what it was at age 10.
Thankfully, we can improve our sensitivity to touch and improve our cognitive and athletic performance, as a result, through tactile stimulation. Make sure to read until the end to find out how!
Our Sense of Touch
Touch is traditionally classified as part of the body’s five senses, along with sight, hearing, smell, and taste. However, it has significant differences from the other four.
Firstly, touch is the only sense not facilitated by only one sensory organ. Instead, we perceive it through various sensory systems, each varying in function, distribution, and density in the skin.
We have different receptors for itch, pain, pressure, temperature, texture, and even gentle touch. Tactile stimulation involves the activation of these receptors with stimuli such as vibration, electricity, texture, and human contact.
Secondly, our tactile sensory system is the only one that allows us to perceive our environment and simultaneously interact with it.
Tactile Stimulation for Health
The wonders of touch in improving well-being have been evidenced by a growing body of research and everyday experience.
Many studies have validated the benefits of tactile stimulation in the recovery of unconscious patients. It has been found to improve the consciousness and vital signs of TBI patients in the ICU and increase the motor function of stroke patients.
These effects may be due to the activation of neural networks during tactile stimulation, which prevents sensory deprivation and hastens recuperation.
Tactile stimulation has also been a staple intervention for infants. A systemic review of literature on physically healthy babies reports that infant massage enhances:
- Sleeping and crying patterns
- Stress responses
- Circadian rhythms
- Bonding between infants and mothers who have postpartum depression
- Resilience to illness
How Tactile Stimulation Improves Performance
Tactile stimulation is best known as a treatment modality for consciousness disorder patients, newborns and infants, and individuals with an autism spectrum disorder.
However, a small body of research is pointing to this technique as a means to improve the performance of healthy individuals and athletes as well. Here’s how:
Tactile Stimulation and Cognitive Performance
In tests amongst human and non-human animals alike, scientists have discovered that tactile stimulation induces glycogen utilization in brain regions activated by sensory input. Glycogen, an energy store, plays a vital role in learning and memory formation.
Researchers also hypothesize tactile stimulation to induce long-term potentiation or LTP. This process strengthens the synapses, which bridge the communication of neurons with each other and with other cells. This effect then leads to improved sensory acuity.
Tactile Stimulation and Athletic Performance
The above mentioned points are closely related to the benefits of tactile stimulation to athletic performance.
For instance, learning and memory formation in athletes also seem to be facilitated better through tactile stimulation.
Several studies on snowboarding and rowing have found that feedback on how, when, and where to move delivered through tactile cues produces better performance in athletes.
Meanwhile, sensitivity to touch also plays a big role in athleticism.
A review of studies on elite and novice fencers showed that it takes less time for them to react to tactile stimuli than visual or auditory cues. Further, the advanced athletes had shorter reaction times than the beginners across the board.
These findings show that having better perceptual skills are highly advantageous in sports. Athletes who feel more keenly can react more promptly to stimuli, which is a crucial factor for success.
How to Integrate Tactile Stimulation Into Your Daily Life
At this point, you may wonder: “I feel things with my skin every day, so why do I need extra stimulation?”
Well, to be beneficial, tactile stimulation needs to be intentional.
Regions of the brain responsible for sensing touch can become unbalanced. If you use your right hand more than your left hand, for example, the part of the brain that perceives sensation in your left hand will expand and encroach on nearby regions.
It may be difficult to carve time out of your busy day to mindfully stimulate your sense of touch alone. So here’s an ingenious way to do it:
Combine it with exercise.
Rev6 uses textured equipment in many of our exercises, which are designed to engage your sense of touch while challenging your balance, strength, and coordination at the same time.
Our recommended equipment varies in shape, size, smoothness, and structure, ensuring that your hands, feet, and entire body are stimulated in a non-monotonous way.
If you would like to preserve and strengthen your sense of touch, and improve your cognitive and physical performance as an added benefit, try out one of our classes today! https://rev6.fit/membership
Borysiuk, Z., & Waskiewicz, Z. (2008). Information Processes, Stimulation and Perceptual Training in Fencing. Journal of Human Kinetics, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.2478/v10078-008-0005-y
Brickwedde, M., Schmidt, M. D., Krüger, M. C., & Dinse, H. R. (2020). 20 Hz Steady-State Response in Somatosensory Cortex During Induction of Tactile Perceptual Learning Through LTP-Like Sensory Stimulation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2020.00257
Enoch, J., McDonald, L., Jones, L., Jones, P. R., & Crabb, D. P. (2019). Evaluating Whether Sight Is the Most Valued Sense. JAMA ophthalmology, 137(11), 1317–1320. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2019.3537
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Swanson, R. A., Morton, M. M., Sagar, S. M., & Sharp, F. R. (1992). Sensory stimulation induces local cerebral glycogenolysis: Demonstration by autoradiography. Neuroscience, 51(2), 451–461. https://doi.org/10.1016/0306-4522(92)90329-z
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