Touching On The Topic Of Touch


I’m reading a fascinating book entitled The Body Keeps the Score. It’s written by a doctor who specializes in treating victims of traumatic stress. In it, he refers to modern society as “astoundingly disembodied.” In an effort to shut down emotions and memories, he claims most people – especially those suffering PTSD – have become numb to their bodies.

While I’m hardly qualified to address issues of trauma, my efforts at A.I. Labs have always been geared toward restoring awareness of and sensitivity to the sensations in our bodies. I call this attunement: the first of four building blocks for cultivating Aesthetic Intelligence.

In several of our recent newsletter and podcasts, we’ve challenged you to become more mindful of sensations like soundssmells and tastes. We now tune in to the most primal sensation — touch.

Discipline, direction, healing, pleasure, pain, bonding, control… The connection between touch and emotion extends to these and many other aspects of life. Here are some of our biggest Aha’s on the topic:

1 | Through Touch We Remember

Relatively little is known about long-term memory of haptic, or touch-based, experiences. However, research shows that people store enormously detailed and durable memories through physical sensations like pressure, pain, itching or pleasure. Haptic memories also guide our fingers when we play an instrument or type on a keyboard.

We have two different touch systems:

  • Discriminative touch – through which we acquire “facts” (e.g., location, movement or strength).
  • Emotional touch – through which we experience social bonding (e.g., maternal nurturing, friendly hug or sexual embrace)

2 | Through Touch We Express Ourselves

Just as we all have a mother tongue, we also have a mother touch. This is the tactile code of communication that underpins the ways in which we engage with other people — the implicit rules about who can touch whom, where and in what manner. These rules are shaped by culture and individual upbringing. Did you know Argentinians are considered the most touchy-feely people? In contrast, the Japanese have one of the world’s lowest tolerances for “skinship.”

Cultural Symbol of Kissing

The meaning of a kiss varies dramatically by geography, politics and religion. Think of the fraternal kiss among communist leaders, demonstrating the special connection between socialist countries, or the “kiss of peace” in Christian religious services, exchanged as a sign of unity.

Throughout Europe, a peck on the cheek (or two in Italy, three in Belgium) is a common greeting. But in countries like India, Bangladesh and Thailand, kissing is only done in private.

In many parts of the world, a kiss on the lips is viewed as romantic gesture. The Tsonga tribe of Southern Africa, however, are openly disgusted by the concept of kissing.


Tactile Systems for Storytelling

Touch is also used as a communications systems for people who are visually impaired. The most famous is, of course, braille.

For the Nuba people of Sudan, a form of braille is painfully tatooed onto the skin to tell stories of their heritage and identity.

3 | Through Touch We Thrive

As a society, we tend to diminish the importance of tactile pleasures. But it is through bodily contact and skin-to-skin stimulation that we feel our deepest sense of wellbeing. Think of the coziness of a cashmere blanket on a snowy night or the refreshing sensation of an ice cube on a hot humid day.

Comfort in Touch

Thomas Jefferson first argued that the “pursuit of happiness” is a basic human right, and it is rooted, in part, on material and sensorial comfort.

In today’s world, that pursuit has been undermined by the inordinate amount of time we spend on our devices and our isolation from other people and nature. As such, we live in a constant state of discomfort and haptic deprivation.

Sensorial Enhancement

The pleasure of touch goes beyond mere bodily comfort. Non-utensil finger-eaters (such as the millions of people in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East) are said to enjoy eating food as much for tactile pleasures as for the taste of the food itself.

Pillar of Good Health

One notable trend in popular culture is de-stigmatization of sexual wellness. Brands like Maude have repositioned their products as self-care, and Kama is a science-backed exercise that seeks to democratize the pleasure of touch.

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