Touch is getting a closer look

If you remember kindergarten or even preschool, you might recall your teacher talking about our five senses. Can you name them?

Seeing – eyes
Hearing – ears
Smell – nose
Taste – mouth

The importance of touchWhat’s the fifth one again? Oh yes, touch and that little talked about largest organ of the body…skin.

Before we go any further with this thought, though, keep in mind that scientists don’t know how many senses we have. Different articles mention different theories…fourteen senses, twenty-one, even thirty. Here are a couple to consider:

Proprioception is our sense of where we and the parts of our body are in relationship to space and each other. A common way to demonstrate this is to close your eyes and place your right index finger on your nose. How did you know which finger to use; how did you move that finger to your nose without sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch? That’s proprioception.

We also have a sense of time, of hunger and thirst. We can sense the presence of another without using our five “known” senses. If you subscribe to the concept of energy and connection with others over time, space, and even existence, you might have a story that goes something like this.

My sister and I have always been very connected to each other. Even though she lives in Oregon and I live in California, I feel her presence in my life. I don’t know what made me think of her on this particular night, I think of her often. But this time, the thought was stronger, more insistent. I phoned her. No answer. I phoned her daughter. “I’m so glad you called,” she said. “Mom is in the hospital. She had a heart attack.” I got on a plane that night and visited her in the hospital. The doctors had given her a few days to live. I held her hand, told her how much she meant to me. I thought I was saying good-bye. But for some reason, the next day, the doctors changed their prognosis. They said she made a 180. She is still alive and well. She said that hearing my voice and seeing me made her feel something shift in her.

Or you might have sensed the presence of someone who is no longer living, at least in a physical form. The bottom line is, we are limited in our current understanding of our senses. The world of science, by which we are governed in the era of fMRIs and the brain, implies that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

Let’s get back to the topic of touch. How many hugs does it take to maintain a sense of well-being? According to Virginia Satir, a social worker who is well-known for her warmth in family therapy, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” And while this has not been proven scientifically, i.e. through observable, measurable research, science has proven that touch boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and reduces pain, anxiety and depression.

This is a long way from the beliefs of the early twentieth century. In a chapter titled “Too Much Mother Love,” John B. Watson, accredited with founding the behaviorism movement,  advised parents:

Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them on the head when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task (Psychological Care of Infant and Child, pp.81-82).

Those children grew up to be our grandparents and parents. With our current understanding of the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, you can imagine the effect Watson’s advice has had and continues to have on all of us. Simultaneously, we touch screens and devices at increasing frequency. Maybe more than each other.

Without touch, babies fair far worse than babies who have been held, hugged, kissed, massaged, and gently soothed with touch. In a well-documented study of children raised in Romanian orphanges in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists learned that the children, who were not touched, developed myriad mood, cognitive, and self-control issues that followed them into adulthood. They have difficulty connecting with others, making eye contact, and controlling anger.

As always, the brain can be rewired. With love, compassion, and kindness, a handful of the adopted orphans from Romania are able to live independently. Read one story here. Others, however, still live in institutions.

David Linden concludes that “Touch is not optional for human development.” David Linden is an American professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. His book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind (2015), describes the neuroscience of touch.

For some of us, touch can feel unsafe. Touch can be traumatizing. Be sure to set your own boundaries on this topic. Talk about it with a therapist. Touch can trigger wounds. Kenneth Perlmutter, PhD defines trauma as “an interruption in our sense of safety.” So, if touch feels safe to you, get a massage, give someone you know a hug, or three, or twelve. Pet your dog or cat. Snuggle. Cuddle. Rub shoulders. Make yourself and others feel safer, healthier, loved…on your terms.