Thursday, May 3, 2012

Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much--by Benedict Carey

I remember pictures in my sociology text book of baby monkeys cradled against cloth-wrapped wire surrogate mothers in Harry Harlow experiments.  These pictures made me weep.  Touch is what these pictures were about.

Touch is essential to our development and key in relationships and emotional health.  I remember in the middle of a particularly difficult battle with depression, my dear friend Charla trying to console me with words.  Nothing worked and my body sobbed.  I remember her taking me by the hand and leading me into the living room where she had me take off my shirt and lay down.  She touched and massaged my back, shoulders, neck, arms for what seems like hours as I remember it, but most likely didn't last that long.  My crying slowly stopped, my breathing deepened, and I fell into peaceful sleep.  Not only did I feel better the next morning, but I felt closer to her--a greater trust that has endured over the years.

Here are a few articles on touch--both what it does to us and why it is so necessary developmentally, and why it is important to us now.

an article in the NY times

a chapter on touch and human sexuality


a newsletter on the primacy of human touch

The power of touch can easily be abused--humans manipulated, controlled, intimidated, or violated by the touch of another.

The flip side includes the healing, loving, soothing, bonding, strengthening possibilities.  I invite you to share a time when touch has changed you or a relationship in a positive way, or a way in which you see touch as potentially beneficial in a current relationship (spouse-to-spouse, parent-to-child, teacher-to-student, amongst co-workers, etc.) and how you can implement touch.


  1. Years ago I was raped more than once by an older cousin. When I started on my road to healing, I felt a pressing need to meet with that cousin, to see him as he is, and to stop fearing him. I arranged to have lunch with my cousin and a very good friend accompanied me to that event. I did not confront the person who raped me. We chatted about his family and his work and his life for about 45 minutes, and then he left.

    My friend remained with me as I suffered through the resulting reactions. I was nauseated, experiencing multiple flashbacks, and overwhelmed by too many emotions. He took me to a nearby park where we walked for nearly an hour (I have little memory of this), then drove me to my hotel room. He had me lie down on the bed, then he lay next to me, holding me close until the nausea, fear, tremors and flashbacks passed.

    I've never experienced anything like this before. He wanted nothing from me, only wished to lend comfort to an obviously upset friend. There was nothing to say--I could hear nothing beyond the rushing in my ears as my body relived past trauma. He did the only thing he could think of--he stayed with me and he held me close.

    As I think of that day, the importance of having lunch with the man who raped me fades in the enormity of the kindness shown to me by a friend who loves me. The first man damaged my physically and emotionally with his touch--the second man used touch to heal my aching soul. I choose to remember the latter.

    1. Wow, Samantha. Thank you for sharing this powerful story. You so eloquently share the extremes in the capacity of touch. I am so sorry that you experienced rape and at the same time, so grateful that you had a friend who used his powers for good, so to speak.

  2. This reminded me of a beautiful TED talk by Abraham Verghese (a doctor and the author of Cutting for Stone) about the importance of touch for doctors and patients. It's gorgeous!!

  3. My experience wasn't such a massive effect on my life, but I did want to share this.

    My family kisses. Cheek kisses, lip kisses, butterfly kisses, eskimo kisses, "zerburts"...we just love each other. Going to school was a shock, and I realized it was a culture change. Nobody touched out of love. Flippant touch ran rampant. Random people hugged me, and I could tell whether or not they meant it. I felt cheap when I knew they didn't. I missed kisses, not for sensual pleasure, mind, but for the trust and intimacy of close faces. One day, towards the end of my sophomore year, my dear friend Jessica, in saying goodbye, kissed my cheek. I didn't even realize she had until after she'd left, but I felt so calm and at peace and more whole than I had the last two years at school. I couldn't hug two of my roommates without feeling conscious somehow, and then I kissed this dear friend on the cheek with much love of a sister and spirit without batting an eyelash. Touch is sacred in a deeper way than I've truly thought about I think.

  4. This is something that has always frustrated me: as a guy, touch is forbidden.

    There is always the threat of it "meaning something". If I instigate any more than a handshake or hold a hug a second too long, the suspicion flares. "Oh, you LIKE them."
    Implications can fly: "OMGosh! You're [gay/creepy/desperate]!" "Well I [already have a relationship/don't find you attractive enough/worry for my safety], so maybe we shouldn't hang out."

    Hold up, I didn't mean that! I have no ulterior motive. Your imagination far outstrips mine in terms of my intentions.
    Physical contact is the love language I respond to best, and if you can't allow me to touch you for fear that I might want more from you than you want to give, then I'm stuck being paranoid. I can still work well enough from other things like quality time, but I struggle to maintain the balance between knowing that you care about me and assuring you that I don't care about you inordinately.

    There are some incredibly selfish men who do terrible things, and I understand that being careful is necessary. Yet I still wish that I could give and receive love in the way I find most meaningful.