The Power of Touch, the Immediacy of Presence
“Life is too sweet and too short to express our affection with just our thumbs. Touch is meant for more than a keyboard.” – Kristin Armstrong
Lamenting the loss of real relationships in light of the focus on social media and technology has become so commonplace, it’s reached that vaunted realm of yesteryear wisdom, a symbol of generational differences rather than a legitimate critique of modern behavior. Such a cultural change is not without fallout, however, as human practices taken for granted are now puzzled about. Living in a world in which “the stranger” has become synonymous with all that is perilous to children and free society, we focus less on how touch can be good or bad and more on avoiding it altogether.
How often is touch fully considered? Attempt keeping a small journal entry, making a mark each and every time an object or a person is touched, no matter how slight. Then start keeping track of personal mood. It’s practically a guarantee of human psychology that the more touch one participates in, however casual it may be and in so long as it isn’t negative, the more positive one’s mood will be. Psychology Today recently did an article on the benefits of human touch, coming up with a list connected with various research, notably that done by Dacher Keltner.
1. Decreased violence
2. Greater trust between individuals
3. Economic gain
4. Decreased disease and stronger immune system
5. Stronger team dynamics
6. More non-sexual emotional intimacy
7. Greater learning engagement
8. Overall well-being
Of the eight in the list, three are directly linked with communication and a case could be made for linking at least another three. What is it about touch that is so important for communication? Let’s consider that for open and honest communication to take place, indeed even when it is not, what is occurring is a communal-creation. This is more than a word gimmick, it’s a means of understanding the nature of what emerges each and every time two or more people engage in anything remotely associated with communication, from full dialogue to casual glances. Each person brings their particular background and personal interpretive narrative, combining to build a communal union that is both and what is between.
To see what is going on, we can start from the shared reality of humanity. From within this broad circle note that each and every person is an individual instantiation of the human organism. This accounts for both how people can have varied backgrounds and yet still understand one another, albeit to varying degrees in different contexts. Were we each a sui generis, utterly unique and disconnected entity there’d be no hope for improved understanding, no reason to work at getting better in dialogue. Without a shared human experience, all the self-help guides, individual and couples therapy, would be utterly useless. All of these endeavors function, not as a means of bridging an insurmountable gap, but of enlightening each and every person to the reality of a bridge already in existence.
So it is that in touch we find a direct physical manifestation of that bridge, a visceral acknowledgment of our shared humanity. Remarkably, touch, despite our dedication to being our own person, allows for a decent level of prediction for another’s mood. As Field (2010) notes:
In the Hertenstein et al. (2006) study, the investigators assigned a group of participants to the role of encoder (sender) who was instructed to express an emotion by touching the decoder’s (receiver’s) forearm. The sender was given different emotion words including happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, fear, sympathy, love, pride, envy and gratitude. The receiver was separated from the sender by a curtain to prevent any use of visual cues and was then asked to choose the emotion that was received from the sender. The results of this study showed that different kinds of touch were used to signal different emotions, and the receivers were able to identify the emotions, with accuracy ranging from 48% to 83%. This range is comparable to the accuracy of decoding facially and vocally transmitted emotions (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002).
Such levels of accuracy are rather impressive considering that other visual cues, notably the face, were inaccessible. Further, consider for a moment just what it means to pick up the emotional state of another person simply through touch. That level of communication is one often missed even between long-established friendships, yet these people in the study were strangers. Given the degree to which emotion plays a part in everything from violence to team dynamics and personal well-being, it is little wonder then that an increase in touch can help mitigate the negatives in all of those situations.
Much has been written about how online bullying and trolling arises out of perceived anonymity. Note the distinct separation in that social force of being anonymous, it is the passive presence of social shunning. Disconnected from the other, there is then no need to consider the shared reality of human existence, being as it is far more easily forgotten or ignored. The communal-union that emerges has less to do with any degree of honest understanding and far more to do with what each person projectively imagines the other to be, regardless of its accuracy.
The more we remove a central aspect of our humanity from our lives, we do not merely increase the negative consequences associated with violence, decreased trust and lack of social cohesion, we reside ever more fully in the internal constructs of our minds. Communication is difficult enough when actively engaged with another, but at least they are fully there to be grasped and explore the broader shared humanity each is within. The insularity provided by removing in-person contact lends itself then to a loss in understanding another but also of understanding ourselves. Given the nature of an interconnected reality and the problems faced then by an interconnected humanity, any loss makes finding solutions all that much harder.
Studies have indicated that even a small increase in social acknowledgment goes a long way towards improving ethical behavior. Merely placing a picture of eyes above a charitable donations table can increase giving. Perhaps in day-to-day communications, whether in-person or more importantly when not, reminding ourselves that the other shares a humanity more than is distant from it can encourage stepping out of preconceived biases and into a desire for exploration.
© David Teachout
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30(4), 367–383. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.01.001