Years ago, while having a friendly discussion with a psychologist, I reached across the coffee table to pat his hand. He’d said something amusing and my reaction had been automatic. “You know what’ve you done?” he said, when I’d settled back in my chair. “You’ve anchored the moment.” I must have looked blank because he went on to explain that anchoring was touching someone to create a link during a shared experience — like telling someone a secret or enjoying a joke together. The contact committed the instant to memory. “Never anchor with someone when you’re angry,” he laughed as a warning.
My touchy-feely inclinations I blame on my mother who needed no reason to throw her arms around me and give me an unexpected kiss. As a child I adored these encounters. As a teenager, it felt as if I were living with an octopus. Now I realize how nurturing her overflowing affection was and I am grateful for it.
Lydia Denworth lays out the latest research on human contact in, “The Social Power of Touch.” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2015, pgs. 30-39.) For a start, there’s more than one type of touch receptor on the skin and each responds to different cues. Some like to be stretched. Some prefer to be squeezed or pushed. Others, like A-betas, respond instantly to sensations like pain or an itch. Still others react slowly, as to a caress. (Ibid Pg. 33) A-betas receptors are found all over the body but especially in the palms of the hands. CTs are affected by body temperatures and gentle pressure, as when I tapped the psychologist’s hand. They are not sexual receptors, however. .(Ibid 33.)
A third receptor, C fibers, slow responders, promote a fellow-feeling — the kind that allows us to work together as a species. By the way, this type of touch “is the first sense to emerge in utero… [and] the most strongly developed sense at birth.” (Ibid, pg. 36.) C fibers explain why an infant reaches out for its nurturer and often cries when separated.
Touch alone, however, doesn’t control the brain’s reaction to others. Someone approaching with a smile but a lifted dagger may not inspire confidence or the willingness to be touched. But in the main, our desire to reach out to someone is evidence we need connections to promote our survival and our health. Nurturing of this kind is not possible in the virtual world.
Of course, no one needed science to assure us that touch is important. If we didn’t understand its value instinctively, we’d have the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words: “Love consists of this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
(Originally published 9/24/15)