We are living in a time when “keeping in touch” has never been more important. The dramatic advances in technology and electronics are deeply affecting the way we now regard touch. Electronics are altering our ways of feeling and being. Tapping on our mobiles and computers has begun to overtake touch as a way of communicating. The speed with which these changes are occurring is such that we hardly seem able to absorb their impact. I am not going to propose a resolution in this blog — I shall simply try to awaken readers to what is and may be happening.
The feminist #MeToo movement is declaring that men should not touch women without their consent. This revealed the depth of our current confusion as well as hypocrisy: We all touch each other every time we shake hands and our hands are among the most sensitive parts of our body.
Touch is one of the bases of social expressiveness in many cultures. In our effort to redress the long history of unwanted aggressiveness and “touching” are we in danger of seeing indiscretion in every innocent gesture?
“I touch, therefore I am,” is integral to our being. Touch is essential in confirming our physical reality. It is also at the basis of “the common good” for both the self and our social relations. In the stories and videos of Joseph Biden, this candidate appears to be inflicted by an ignominious case of touchy-feeliness. Seven women came forward to claim that Biden had touched them in such a way as to make them feel uncomfortable. He has acknowledged that social norms have been transformed. His touching was his way of showing that he cares, but he recognized that the boundaries were being reset. Indeed, “If the thought of touching anyone in your office makes you shudder, then you will empathize with those who say hugging and kissing should be banned at work,” wrote one commentator.1
Most women in the advanced economies have experienced variations of inappropriate touching by over-familiar men. “Many women tolerate a range of creepiness from men who plead ignorance about what they are doing,” admitted Suzanne Moore.2 Touch can be an expression of intimacy but she writes that “unwanted touch is an expression of power.” Whatever the politically powerful may think they are doing, “they are actually embracing inequality. This doesn’t make women merely uncomfortable. It makes some of us rigid with anger.”
The effect on humans of touch can be so strong that even the lightest can have powerful effect. Studies have shown that waitresses “accidentally“ touching a customer while bringing the bill will receive bigger tips. Indeed, a passing touch can lift the mood of two people in a flash. Touch can release neurochemicals like endorphins and neurohormones such as oxytocin in the brain which heal feelings like anger, loneliness, and isolation. Nurturing touches, like hugs, can lift serotonin levels, elevating moods, relaxing muscles, and balance the nervous system.
How far have we moved since the expression of “Let’s keep in touch,” first came into use. Indeed some societies have entered an era of “Touch me not!” In general the role of touch in society has been demoted, according to Prof Steve Cole, of the UCLA School of Medicine. “We’re not necessarily designed for this distance,” Cole said. We should be able to touch each other without recrimination. Physical contact has been shown to help reduce stress and increase empathy.
Touch of the skin, or tactile sense, is the body’s shield and makes us aware of the environment which surrounds us, such as the temperature, pain, as well as the lightest breeze. Without this sensory system we would have no physical self-awareness. It would appear that the cognitive capacities of touch, which was among the first of the sensory systems to evolve, are only recently being appreciated. Touch leaves a memory trace that persists long after the physical experience is gone. As a consequence, memories of touch can manifest in curious ways. For example we may not be able to verbalize how something felt, but we might be able to recognize it later: a single touch can have a far greater impact on the mind than we acknowledged at the time. It was quite different in the past.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed in the Royal Kingdoms that a touch from the King could heal scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis. This practice began with King Edward the Confessor in England and Philip I in France. Subsequent French and English Kings continued a practice which was supposed to demonstrate that the right to rule was God-given. In splendid ceremonies these kings touched hundreds of the afflicted who also received special gold coins called “touchpieces” which were often worn as amulets. By the late 1400s it was believed that the ill could be cured by touching coins called “Angels” which had been handled by the monarch. King Henry IV of France was said to have touched up to 1,500 at one session. Queen Anne, who died in 1714, was the last English monarch to hand out such gold embossed medallions, but in France the practice continued until Charles X ended it in 1825.
I have been deeply moved by a story in Granta magazine by “Poppy” Sebag-Monfefiore who reported on her experiences being touched in China and Asia.3 She started: “Every day I was touched. Many times, by friends, by strangers, by a lady who swept the street by the courtyard where I lived. By water sellers, restaurateurs, by old men playing chess, by people I didn’t know. Most I would never meet again. I was handled, pushed, pulled, leaned upon, stroked, my hand was held. And it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.”
Poppy described the way “Touch had its own language.” I shall not repeat her extremely moving experiences of touch in public which “had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent.” (But were not neutral either). The way an elderly man used her body to help him stand is something I should like everyone to read in Granta. For Poppy usually “touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on….”
How I wish this could happen in our fear-filled English speaking cultures. For all my adult life I have felt both urged and privileged to touch the stomachs of expectant mothers. Of course I ask permission and it is rare that women refuse. I consider it is an honor to be in contact with the miracle of life itself and women are proud to share one of the most important of all human experiences.
In his studies of emotional signaling Matthew J Hertenstein suggests that humans can communicate numerous emotions with touch and can decode anger, disgust, fear, gratitude, love and sympathy via touch.4
The Collective branded as mindbodygreen believe the pillars of wellness are interconnected and are integral for our shared journey in which touching and hugging are a powerful way of healing. Despite the resistance to touch from some quarters, there also is broad appreciation and celebration in others: the just opened “Please Touch Museum” in Philadelphia focuses on the ability of children and parents to focus on the variety of ways we can touch. So some touches are advancing us all!
“We’re post-touch, post-truth. How will society communicate now?” asks Poppy Sebag-Montefiore. Not by ever more rapid systems but only by greater appreciation and understanding of our sentient beings can we return to the open enjoyments of touching .
1Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett., The Guardian, April 25, 2019
2Suzanne Moore, “This touching is about power,” The Guardian, April
3Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, “Touch” in Granta Winter 2019, The Politics of Feeling, pp.17-28
4Matthew J.Hertenstein, The Handbook of Touch: Neuroscience,Behavioral and Health Perspectives (2011)