Touch is the first of the senses to develop in the human infant, and it remains perhaps the most emotionally central throughout our lives. While many researchers have appreciated its power, others have been more circumspect. Writing in 1928, John B. Watson, one of the originators of the behaviorist school of psychology, urged parents to maintain a physical boundary between themselves and their children: “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task.” Watson acknowledged that children must be bathed, clothed, and cared for, but he believed that excessive touching—that is, caressing—would create “mawkish” adults. An untouched child, he argued, “enters manhood so bulwarked with stable work and emotional habits that no adversity can quite overwhelm him.” Now we know that, to attain that result, he should have suggested the opposite: touch, as frequent and as caring as possible.
Like our other senses, touch comes in gradations. It is governed by an exquisite array of receptors that can distinguish minute variations in the external environment. Fast, slow, or in between? Hard, soft, or something else? Hot, cold, warm? Some receptors react only to caresses. Some send pain signals. Some tell us that we have an itch. Each type activates a different part of the brain, making us feel soothed or hurt, comfortable or distressed, angry or calm. In his recent book “Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind,” the Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist David Linden cites “the electric touch of romantic love, the unsettling feeling of being watched, the relief of pain from mindful practice, or the essential touch that newborns need to thrive.” All of these diverse sensations, he writes, “flow from the evolved nature of our skin, nerves, and brain.”
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