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Can More Touching Lead to Less Violence in Our Society?

It probably can if Developmental Neuropsychologist James W. Prescott's Pleasure/Violence Reciprocity Theory is correct.

by Lionel Gambill

The Human Touch, January-February 1985

When twenty-one people were slaughtered by a gunman in a McDonald's fast-food restaurant in San Ysidro, California last July, many of us were forced to confront once again an unpleasant fact of modern life: We live in a violent society, and the threat hangs over all of us constantly—individual acts of violence, mass violence, the threat of nuclear war. Violence, said Stokely Carmichael, is as American as apple pie. Why?

James Prescott believes the answer lies in another fact of life that may be even more American than apple pie—our failure to meet the physical needs of our very young, specifically their need to be given affectionate, caring handling and body contact.

Does Pleasure Reduce Violence?

Body pleasure and violent behavior have a mutually inhibiting relation, according to Prescott: The presence of one inhibits the other. When the brain's pleasure circuits are on, the violence circuits are off, and vice versa. This relation can be demonstrated in the laboratory. Electrical stimulation of the pleasure centers in a raging animal's brain causes the animal to calm down abruptly. And stimulating the violence centers will just as abruptly end an animal's sensual pleasure and peaceful behavior.

If the theory ended there, it would be an interesting intellectual curiosity and little more. What makes it truly provocative is its developmental aspect.

If Prescott is right, many Americans are unknowingly inflicting brain dysfunction on their children, and that brain dysfunction is in turn producing violent behavior, as well as a variety of symptoms generally associated with such disorders as autism and hyperactivity.

Here, in its simplest terms, is the core of Prescott's developmental theory:

  1. Touch (handling and body contact) and Movement are essential sensory "nutrients" for the developing brain in humans as well as other animals.
  2. Touch and Movement Sensory Deprivation early in life results in brain dysfunction and/or brain damage involving the cerebellum, which plays an important regulatory role in emotions as well as sensory and motor activity; the limbic structures of the brain; and the fronto-temporal lobes.
  3. The neurological dysfunction manifests itself as abnormal behaviors—depression during infancy and violent behaviors later; autistic or withdrawn behaviors; stimulus-seeking behaviors, such as rocking or headbanging; and, in monkeys, chronic toe and penis sucking. These behaviors attempt to compensate for the sensory loss or deprivation experience early in life.
  4. Increased vulnerability to alcohol/drug abuse and addiction is a means to cope with the emotional pain of Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD).

Sensory Deprivation, the Brain, and Violence

Sensory-deprivation research provides ample support for Prescott's assertion that brain cell development early in life requires stimulation in the form of touch and movement. Rats reared in a sensory-enriched environment with other rats have significantly more dendrites per neuron in the neo-cortex than those reared in pairs or by themselves.

In Harry and Margaret Harlow's well-known isolation-rearing studies, monkeys deprived of maternal attention in infancy were invariably depressed, hyperreactive to touch, and hyperactive. They were socially inept and given to outbursts of violence, and they often held themselves and rocked like autistic children. Harlow attributed their behavior to "maternal-social deprivation." Prescott states that Somatosensory (touch) and Movement Deprivation is the cause of the abnormal behaviors.

In other experiments signals from electrodes implanted in the limbic and cerebellar regions of the brain in extremely violent isolation-reared monkeys showed abnormal "spike" discharges not seen in normal monkeys. Experimenters have also found abnormally low levels of platelet serotonin, a condition assocated with highly aggressive behaviors, both in isolation-reared monkeys and in institutionalized, highly aggressive children. These results point to an association between the observed abnormal behaviors and brain dysfunction and/or damage induced by Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD) during the formative periods of brain development.

The importance of movement during the perinatal period is well established, and some hospitals now put premature infants in rocking incubators to provide vestibular stimulation that would normally be supplied by the mother's movements. One study by Dr. Mary Neal demonstrated that daily rocking of premature infants significantly increased the development of reflexes, body weight, alertness, and general health compared to non-rocked prematures.

Infants and children immobilized in pediatric orthopedic wards, and infants and children hospitalized or institutionalized for extended periods with little physical touching or holding also develop many of the symptoms seen in isolation-reared animals, including impaired pain perception.

Cats deprived of their sense of touch behave self-destructively. Dogs and monkeys deprived of somatosensory stimulation will engage in self-mutilation, e.g., bite and chew flesh from their fingers, hands, arms, or legs. Prescott argues that these behaviors illustrate one of the basic developmental mechanisms of sadomasochistic and suicidal behaviors in humans.


Hyperexcitability and self-destructive behaviors are typical symptoms of somatosensory deprivation, and are common in isolation-reared animals and humans. Sexual violence against women, particularly sexual mutilation, is explained by Prescott's SAD (Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation) Theory. His triune theory of the Affectional Bond includes the three dimensions of biology, psychology, and spirituality.

Affectionate Societies Versus Violent Societies

If Prescott is right, we should be able to find connections between violent behavior in individuals or societies and touch/movement deprivation in childhood. Prescott cites a study of child abusers by Steele and Pollock, who "found that parents who abused their children were invariably deprived of physical affection themselves during childhood and that their adult sex life was extremely poor."

Prescott also checked data collected by cultural anthropologists to find out what relation existed between variables that reflect physical affection, such as fondling, caressing, and carrying the infants on the body of the mother with variables that measure crime and violence, such as frequency of theft and torture, mutilation, and killing. He compared 49 societies that ranked either high or low, on the Infant Physical Affection Scale.

Table 1 shows the results. Thirty-six of these societies had the expected correlations—22 with high infant physical affection and low adult physical violence, and 14 with low infant physical affection and high adult physical violence. When Prescott added to the high physical affection category societies that were permissive toward adolescent sex, only one exception remained.*

*Subsequent to original publication of this material in The Futurist in April 1975, cultural anthropologists informed Prescott of errors in some of the original codings in the reference work on which the comparision was based. When these errors were corrected, no exceptions remained. The Pleasure/Violence Reciprocity Theory, applied to the cultures listed in that reference work, has a predictive validity of 100%. See Table 1.

Prescott on Infant Massage

Infant massage is one of the most important things parents can do for their children, even though at the very beginning of life movement is more important than touch. All infants should be given daily massages. Ideally, both parents should give their children daily foot massages and back massages in the bathtub. Open affection can be a unifying force in the family.


High Infant Physical Affection
Low Adult Physical Violence
Low Infant Physical Affection
High Adult Physical Violence
High Infant Physical Affection
High Adult Physical Violence
Low Infant Physical Affection
Low Adult Physical Violence
_________ Premarital sex punished
___   ___ Premarital sex permitted
N = 49; XSQ = 8.38; P = .004; PHI = .41; % = 73

aAccording to Harner (1972) the Jivaro culture is misclassified and belongs in column 2 (personal communication).

bAccording to Derek Freeman, Professor of Anthropology, Australian National University, the Samoans belong in column 2 (personal communication).

cThe Zuni are also reclassified to column 3.

Out of these results Prescott evolved a two-stage theory: Brain dysfunction and abnormal behavior caused by touch/movement deprivation in infancy can be reversed by sexual/affectional pleasure in adolescence, and presumably even those children whose touch needs are met in infancy can suffer brain dysfunction in adolescence in a society that is restrictive of adolescent sexual affection. Since 48 of the 49 societies Prescott studied fit the model, he appears to have a theory with exceptionally high predictive validity. Prescott concludes: "Physically affectionate human societies are highly unlikely to be physically violent."

What about our own society? To sample attitudes toward sex and violence, Prescott and his associate, Dr. Douglas Wallace, used a statistical technique called factor analysis to develop a personality profile of the violent person, based on a questionnaire administered to 96 college students. Respondents who placed a high value on physical violence placed a low value on sexual pleasure. Prescott sees this sort of inverse relation also in our acceptance of films depicting sexual violence and condemnation of films depicting sexual pleuure.

Prescott believes his theory points the way to a more peaceful society:

"Clearly, if we consider violent and aggressive behaviors undesirable, then we must provide an enriched somatosensory environment so that the brain can develop and function in a way that results in pleasurable and peaceful behaviors.... [The pleasure/violence reciprocity theory] provides us with the tools necessary to fashion a world of peaceful, affectionate, cooperative individuals."

Prescott on the Family Bath

The beneficial stimulation of whirlpool baths should not be limited to hospitals or heath club spas, but brought into the home. The family bath should be large enough to accommodate parents and children, and be equipped with a whirlpool to maximize relaxation and pleasure. Nudity, openness, and affection within the family can teach children and adults that the body is not shameful and inferior, but rather a source of beauty and sensuality through which we emotionally relate to one another. Physical affection involving touching, holding and caressing should not be equated with sexual stimulation, which is a special type of physical affection.

Editor's Note

We are especially pleased to present Dr. Prescott's Pleasure/Violence Reciprocity Theory to readers of THT. We think it is extremely relevant to the work they are doing, particularly in infant massage, but in other practices as well.

One of the obstacles to a more general acceptance of the value of bodywork has been a devaluing of body pleasure in our culture that, coupled with the "massage parlor" syndrome in popular thinking, has often made it difficult for bodyworkers to obtain the respect their work deserves. Many of us have de-emphasized the pleasure of massage in favor of its more widely accepted therapeutic aspects. Yet here we have Prescott saying that the pleasure is precisely what is most therapeutic, and documenting that assertion with an impressive array of studies from disciplines as diverse as brain physiology and cultural anthropology.

We contacted Prescott and he sent us his latest materials, graciously offering to review our article for accuracy. It also gave a chance to put some tough questions to him. Was he saying that brain damage in infancy could be reversed in adolescence? No, deprivation can produce brain dysfunction, which can develop into brain damage if deprivation continues. Meeting the infant's body pleasure needs gives her/him a higher toleration for deprivation later. In other words, there is a continuum, and the degree of deprivation has to be considered.

Was he mixing two different factors—the effects of affectionate treatment in infancy, of sexual pleasure later? No, the thing that makes touch necessary and deprivation harmful is the effect on the brain's pleasure centers. Both affectionate touching and sexual intimacy nourish the brain but they occur in different social contexts. In the "primitive" cultures that have permissive attitudes toward premarital sex in adolescence, marriages often take place at puberty, and the teenagers in those cultures don't suffer the anguish and deprivation we associate with adolescence.

Prescott responded to our queries about Table 1 by sending us an updated table, which is the one shown here. In the original article, the Infant Physical Affection variable predicted the presence or absence of adult violence in 73% of the cultures in the list, with 13 exccprions out of 49 cultures, and the two-stage model, adding attitudes toward premarital adolescent sex, had a 98% predictive validity.

When Prescott adjusted his figures to correct for errors in the original coding of the reference data, the predictive validity for the one-stage theory rose to 80% and for the two-stage theory it rose to 100%. We think he makes the most powerful case we've seen yet for our belief that "there is no substitute for the human touch." Doctor Prescott adds that "there is also no substitute for affectional bonding, which must reflect the integration of the biological, psychological, and spiritual forces in human relationships."

Republished with the kind permission of Lionel Gambill. OCR, proofreading and HTML by Joel Schlosberg. Please inform us about any errors you find. If you want to write a translation, please contact Erik Möller. Reprinted from the quarterly: The Human Touch, 429 Olive Street Santa Rosa, California 95407 (800) 336-4114 in California (800) 358-8292 elsewhere. Subscriptions: $6/year.