First Contact

The Touch Research Institute promotes the laying on of healing hands

"We're concerned that any touch is going to be construed as sexually or physically abusive," she frets. "There are lawsuits galore out there. Adults are so concerned about touching each other that they have now translated that into being paranoid about touching kids. I mean, even parents are afraid of how they're seen touching their own children in public places. You just don't see this in other societies."

In mammals the need for touch begins at the moment of birth, when the skin is the predominant sensory organ. Stimulation from the mother helps the newborn adjust to the new environment outside the womb and also triggers organic processes that signal the start of growth and development. Without its mother's behavior -- depending on the species, stimuli can include licking, nuzzling or breast-feeding -- a newborn goes into a survival pattern aimed at conserving its small store of energy: Metabolism slows down, and the comparative luxury of growth is stunted until external stimulation begins.

Dr. Saul Schanberg, a professor of pharmacology and biological psychiatry at Duke University and a member of the institute's faculty, says that while the extreme physiological reaction to the lack of touch lasts only through infancy and childhood, the need for tactile stimulation extends throughout life. Schanberg, who has been studying the physiology of touch for the past quarter of a century, uses a computer analogy to explain how touch works: The central nervous system is the built-in hardware and wiring, and the brain is the software that interprets the information collected and sent by the nerves. He says the amount of physical pleasure and relaxation that touch confers speaks volumes about its importance. "Most of us really enjoy getting hugged," he says. "Why hugging? Why isn't shaking hands great? Why isn't talking great? Why isn't a relaxation technique or just looking at waves great? It's nice. But it isn't like hugging. I mean, after a good massage you can hardly get off the freaking table."

In the book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin -- a sweeping work, first published in 1971 and last updated in 1986, that is considered the seminal work on the subject -- anthropologist and social biologist Ashley Montagu included a long list of observations and studies demonstrating the tragic consequences of touch deprivation on infants.

In the Thirteenth Century, for example, Emperor Frederick II of Germany wanted to know what language people would communicate in if, as tested by experiment, they grew up without speaking to anyone. Would they speak Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or the language of their parents? As part of the isolation imposed by Frederick's experiment, foster mothers and nurses were forbidden to suckle, bathe, or wash the infants who had been separated from their parents at birth. "But [Frederick] labored in vain," wrote the thirteenth-century historian Salimbene, "because all the children died, for they could not live without petting." Even as recently as the early Twentieth Century, Montagu recounts, a New York pediatrician reported that the death rate for infants under one year of age who were placed in foundling institutions -- places where abandoned babies were warehoused and rarely if ever touched -- throughout the United States was nearly 100 percent.

In 1963 researcher Harry F. Harlow published the results of an experiment involving rhesus monkeys that demonstrated the importance of touch and physical contact to babies. When given a choice between a surrogate mother made of wire and outfitted with a nipple that supplied milk and a softer surrogate mother that offered no nourishment but was covered with terry-cloth "skin" concealing a heat-generating light bulb, "the babies spent 99 percent of the time with the soft, covered one," Schanberg notes.

In another study Harlow separated newborn rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth, hand-reared them to adolescence, and then put the animals together in an enclosure where they were subjected to mild stress (for instance, a handler walking into the area). "So what did the monkeys always do?" Schanberg asks. "They ran to each other like crazy and grabbed hold of each other for what looked like dear life."

Harlow took a picture of four rhesus monkeys clinging to each other; the image is now referred to in scientific circles as "Harlow's Choo-Choo Train."

"I keep a big copy of the photo right in my office, because you look at that, you have no goddamned question -- there's no question at all -- touching is clearly security-giving and anxiety-reducing," Schanberg says. "They never saw touching, they don't know where it came from, they never saw each other. It's hard-wired. So you think about that: We're born with a genetic tendency for soft, touching things, for the ability to gain security and reduce our anxiety by hugging and touching and grasping."

Like Schanberg, Field also has a copy of Harlow's photo in her office. And there's no question in Field's mind either that humans need touch.

Ask her why touch is so essential and Field will talk about the central nervous system and its two states: sympathetic activation, more commonly known as the "fight or flight" response, seen when animals sense danger and adrenaline courses through the bloodstream; and parasympathetic activation, a state that most people would simply understand as relaxation. She will expound on skin, which, with about nineteen square feet per average adult, is the body's largest organ. She will talk about the thousands of specialized nerve receptors in the skin that, through electrical impulses transmitted to the sensory cortex of the brain, communicate everything from body movement to changes in temperature and allow us to distinguish between a playful poke and a lover's caress.

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