We cannot thrive without touch. Of the five senses, it’s the one we can’t do without. And oddly, the most underrated. Through touch we are known and make ourselves known. Without touch, we’d not be here at all.
Recently I viewed a TV episode of long-running Doctor Who (Season 2, Episode 2, “New Earth”), whose eponymous protagonist lands on a remote planet in a distant future. Confined to multi-tiered isolation cells in a hospital setting, underclass humans are reduced to abstract entities, or guinea pigs, serving the health needs of a privileged oligarchy of feline nurses. Doctor Who to their dynamic rescue, their cells spring open, unleashing a meandering human stream. Bewildered in a strange freedom, they wander into a coterie of fellow feeling and mutual touching, conferring healing.
I knew a family well where touching was remote, not even a hug, and a handshake at best. The children, five of them, turned into adults, responsible, hard-working, charitable—yet each lacking self-regard, competing for love, but never finding enough, questing inevitably for a validity always elusive. The father rebuked me on one occasion: “Don’t talk to me about love. Isn’t it enough that I feed and clothe them and provide a place for them to sleep?”
I came from a working class Irish family, my mother absent; my father, a quick-tempered alcoholic who boozed away income, often leaving us nibbling on tawdry white bread salt and pepper sandwiches. And yet we, four children, found love in each other over the years bonded by childhood memories, visiting, confiding—yes, in that time unlike our own—transcending space, exchanging letters. In person, we greeted each other with hugs, kissed cheeks, slapped backs, conversing into the night’s meandering hours, reechoing childhood venues.
Numberless animal experiments exhibit the dismal results of tactile neglect. In a Duke experiment with rats, neurologist Saul Schanberg found that rat offspring, deprived of maternal licking and grooming, experienced a loss in growth hormones. Even though hormone secretion increased on return to their mothers, an incessant need for stroking to return normalcy was required.
In parallel, we’ve found that neglected children sometimes stop growing and that children not sufficiently touched often grow-up reluctant to touch others, or what I call an inability to show love.
Diane Ackerman reminds us in her voluptuous exploration of our sensory dimension (A Natural History of the Senses) how densely populated our language is with references to touching: “Language is steeped in metaphors of touch. We call our emotions feelings, and we care most deeply when something “touches” us. Problems can be thorny, ticklish, sticky, or need to be handled with kid gloves. Touchy people, especially if they’re coarse￼, really get on our nerves.”
Similarly, one reason why I find novelist D. H. Lawrence’s work so appealing over a lifetime is its pervasive reiteration of the centrality of touch to our well-being, or at the core of what defines our essence; in Lawrencian parlance, what titillates the solar plexus. It was why art patron Mabel Dodge Sterne invited him to Taos, New Mexico, this artisan sage with “the feel and touch and smell of places.”
I’m point man now, my siblings vanished into that perennial Night all of us must inevitably embrace and yet, as though it were yesterday, they remain presences, gifting me with their palpable love.