The sense of touch
What is touch?
Touch is the most important sense of our body. It gives us the idea of depth, thickness and forms. It is through our skin, thanks to touch, that we feel, love and hate.
The skin is our first mean of communication, the most effective protection we have. After the mind, the skin is what is most important. The sense of touch is the one that is the most associated to the skin; it is the first sense to develop in the embryo. It is transmitted from the skin to the brain and it constitutes a vital alarm system. People suffering from the cutaneous Alagia Situation can get badly hurt before becoming aware of danger because, due to this illness, their skin is insensitive to pain. According to a documentary shown recently on Radio Canada, a lady suffering from this illness was practicing how to hold an egg between her fingers. It took 8 years of daily practice before she was able to hold it without dropping or crushing it. Can you imagine all the efforts of concentration it took from her in order to do that? Only the highest part of her face has any feeling at all. In order to avoid being burned with her coffee, she verifies its temperature with her forehead. A human being could live while being blind, deaf and without the sense of taste or smell, but could not survive a minute without the functions performed by the skin. The permanent stimulation of the skin by the environment helps maintain its sensory and motor tonus.
Contrary to sight and hearing, touch allows us to feel things inside of us. Taste and smell are senses limited to the surface of the nasal cavities and the palate. Touch makes us aware that our world is composed of people and objects that are other bodies. Touch is a sense involving the whole body. Through touch, we feel sensations from outside. Through touch we reveal all our inner sufferings and all our untold desires. It is very difficult to imagine someone who received love and tenderness once young and who could not demonstrate any love and tenderness toward another human being. What can hurt a child later is the parental ignorance. This can be due to rejection from the mother toward any demonstration of love from her son because she is afraid that her son will become too attached to her. It can also be due to rejection from the father because he is afraid that his son will become a homosexual. To slap a child may keep the discipline, but it can also transform the skin in a source of pain instead of pleasure. We voluntarily inflict pain that deprives them of the wellbeing the skin usually signifies to them. With time, children will associate their own skin and anybody else’s skin with pain and will fear touching, avoiding any contact with skin later on in life. (Ref.: La peau et le toucher, un premier langage, Ashley Montagu).
Communication through touch
Every culture approaches birth, life, death and the importance of touch differently. In Europe, people kiss each other every time they meet, while in Québec, kissing is still somewhat taboo. Today, even a simple handshake is hardly exchanged, even when people meet for the first time. In the Province of Québec, touch always held a pejorative sense. We accidentally touch or even brush someone without a good reason for it and we excuse ourselves as a result of narrow-minded education from the Victorian era. Here in Québec, touch may still be a sin; it was preached as such for years in schools. Touch was controlled by the laws of the country and those of the Church. Narrow-minded people were raised because it was believed to be better that way. It is not surprising that during more then a century, women were cold as ice, hated men and defended their VIRTUE against men’s attacks 24 hours a day, every day. Even the doctor doesn’t touch a lot. He mostly asks questions and prepares prescriptions, which leaves the patient dissatisfied and frustrated. The tactile experience is a human being’s need from age 0 to 150 years old. We must re-educate our minds, learn again that knowing our body is important and we must annihilate once and for all this feeling conveyed by everyone that everything associated with our body is bad or sexual.
Our culture is essentially audiovisual and predominantly visual. The sense of touch is left out. When we are blindfolded, we automatically try to “see” with our hands instead of “feel” our environment. We have not learned to feel with our hands, our body or our whole skin. We do not know how to express our whole being through contact with someone else or meet other people with more than a look, which almost always keeps a certain distance1. We also have not learned to develop our sense of touch in order to be able to feel subtle things or even help us perceive them at a distance. The sense of touch is the first to develop in utero (at 8 weeks of pregnancy) and it is the only sense that is distributed on the whole body. We most probably did not get that nature’s gift by accident and it is very sad not to use or develop it. Why was this potential, which is innate and still expressed by children, left out? Hypotheses envisioned now are presently changing, but they are nonetheless still there.
We are talking here about a tactile sensation of something that we cannot touch directly. For example, if someone is throwing a ball to me, I can feel the ball coming before it touches my hands. On the one hand, the precocious relationship with the mother is very often marked by a lack. The intra-uterine life is not really considered. Its impact on the individual’s psychic life is not really studied. In utero, babies receive tenderness while in their mother’s womb, but they are also often confronted with objectiving2 touches from their parents.
After the birth, the baby is weaned too early from a close and securing contact. We warn women against keeping the baby in their arms or in their bed (during the Second World War, doctors forbade nurses to take the babies in their arms even to feed them. The infant mortality rate was very high. Seeing this, doctors suggested to nurses to take babies in their arms to feed them. In a few months only, the mortality rate tumbled by a third). The body relationship with the mother is done through caring, so it is an affective relationship, instead of a relationship of pleasure, games and free exchanges.
On the other hand, the relationship with the father is one of absence or sexualisation. On the corporeal side, the father is rarely with the child before the oedipian age. At that time, the child experiences an instinctive impulse which, if corporeal contact is established in that period, it will sexualize the child more. Also, the relationship between the father and his daughter is not only related to the capacity or incapacity of the father for a relationship with his spouse, but also to his level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in that relationship. Generally, the daughter does not get a lot of physical contact from her father. She is looked at, by a “touching” look, a look that is sexualized, which makes her uncomfortable. Sometimes, she will take her mother’s place and her privacy will be violated, sometimes she will even be sexually abused. As for the son, he becomes a “prisoner” in his relationship with his mother where he is the “little man”.
Consequently, children who experienced a lack when they were very young – not absence, but lack of real and respectful presence, lack of availability, lack of affective contact – become adults who cannot live with their bodies. Their body becomes essentially functional. These children adapt to the exterior’s reality, compromise, but lie to themselves and become vulnerable. They develop defensive reactions, close up to the exterior world and act in a rationality based on control of themselves and dominance of the cerebral control. They tend to place themselves in relationships of power or dependence, are not in contact with themselves and have almost no deep contact with others.
An objectiving touch is one that makes the other person feel like an object instead of a person. A child who has experienced an affective confirmation of his/her existence – as soon as possible – sees himself/herself as good. The baby feels secure, allowing him/her to assert his/her individuality. When a child feels secure, the authentic personality automatically develops.
Another consequence of a lack is found at the level of corporeal memory of the skin and the cells that register how we are touched along with those of the fascias (membranes that affix the muscles to the bones) that keep the print of traumas. This memory is corporeal and emotional. Osteopaths working with babies know very well those situations where, from a corporeal stimulation, the baby remembers his birth’s movements and emotions.
The body registers sensations and can remember them precisely. Thus, archaic memories and sensations can be stimulated by a simple touch. Touch is a sense directly in contact with the sub-conscience. It is there before words, which means that when we touch someone, we wake up something of that memory, even if we cannot remember what it is. We re-stimulate lacks, sufferings, pains, separations but also taboos, and fears related to prohibition to touch or to be touched. We must know that all the lacks we experienced and the healing we want for ourselves and others can stop communication.
What of touch in the professional world? The professionals’ attitude is saturated with these taboos, fears and prohibitions. During their years of schooling, professionals learn an aseptic touch, without affective feeling, with which they are effective but rarely implicated, that is to say rarely present. In hospitals, be it as patients, professionals, or as teachers, we rarely meet caregivers that touch while really listening to their needs and that of others. The caregivers with a professional façade give objectiving and rationalizing touches. Caregivers are more in their head than in their bodies. Caregivers have learned to ignore themselves in order to care for others, and not be present for others, that is to say “neutral” in their contact. In particular, in psychoanalysis, there are the following technical regulations: benevolent neutrality (first and foremost to stay neutral) and the prohibition to touch. The tactile is abandoned for the language in order to avoid influencing the patient. Giving up touching has become a regulation, then a prohibition, even a taboo, that is to say something that we cannot talk about. Some people believe that this prohibition to touch in psychoanalysis isolates the touch to the sexual level. Thus, this allows forgetting the archaic sides of touch and communication and, this way, not facing the terrors and sufferings on these levels.
During their training in communication through touch, some professionals such as: massotherapists, kinesitherapists, osteopaths, orthotherapists, orthogerontologists, T.R.P’s, chiropractitioners, physiotherapists, etc., learn to become affective in their touch, to listen to themselves and others in their contact, to dare to have real meetings. They learn to differentiate touch with the intention to touch with presence, to become aware of the way they touch and to improve the quality of their presence in their touch.
When we touch somebody, particularly somebody who suffers, the first contact with that person can saturate the person’s body and condition the rest of the relationship (for example, cold hands or in a hurry). This happens mostly unconsciously on both sides. We must develop our awareness. When we touch a person as a being with a body, a soul, a story and not only a body, that person breaths better and relaxes. The person feels recognized, secure and can open up and develop his/her own potential.
Through questioning (the questions would be too long to be listed here) the professional learns to develop his/her own awareness and of the other person and to become clearer and more authentic in his/her contact with the other person. Then he/she learns to develop his/her sense of touch. He/she learns to listen with his/her hands instead of see with his/her hands. When he/she listens with his/her hands, he/she tries to make contact with the other person with respect toward himself/herself and the other. He/she learns to be available for the other person and to listen, while preventing making projections and interpretations.
Communication through touch is first and foremost developing a quality of contact, of presence, an opening at the level of the heart when we have a relationship with another person. It is developing an emotional touch, a touch of tenderness which goes beyond the body to meet the soul of the other person. This contact of tenderness has nothing to do with an objectiving, nor a sexualized touch. The latter always brings back corporeal and sometimes emotional vulnerability. Communication through touch is a contact during which we meet the other person with respect while being open to ourselves. The world of emotions is an interior world, deep but open to encounter. For this contact to be real and not superficial, it must start from the inside of us.
Emotional touch relieves anguish. It secures us, consoles and does a lot of good. It helps a person to feel less vulnerable, not only on the psychological level, but also on the corporeal level. Through emotional touch, it is possible to decrease the sensation of and the sensitivity to pain. The professional can be both professional and emotional in his contact. “To be emotional” does not mean “to be equivocal”. It also does not mean to become too familiar, or to try to have a fusional relationship with the other person. On the contrary, it is to be even more professional because it requires from the professional to have developed as much his/her “expertise” as his/her ability to be in a deep relationship with himself/herself while in a real relationship with another person, not only on the level of touch, but as a whole. That is what communication through touch is.
In conclusion, all emotions go through touch. A single handshake can reveal personality, character, emotions or feelings of a person. Nothing is more disagreeable than a flabby or crushing handshake. All inner emotions are unconsciously revealed though the hands, said emotions being felt toward the other person or not. Through touch, we can communicate to the other person all our negativity as much as our positivity. While in contact with his/her inner self, the professional learns to deal with his/her moods in order not to transmit them to his/her patient. Remember that he/she his also human, with his/her feelings and he/she has a life beside his/her professional life. He/she must then be a good listener, that is to say, he/she must be receptive, congruent, open and show empathy, ready to support the other person while not trespassing the limits of his/her expertise or he/she must refer his/her patient to another professional if necessary.
Every human being needs contact through touch, but just not any kind of touch, that is to say not cold, superficial, aseptic, objectiving or sexualized. It must be filled with tenderness and affection. It has been proven that the people who need tactile contact the most are those who live alone, single, but mostly old aged people. We just have to remember our grandmother who held our hands through hers all the time. (Ref.: Brigitte Dohmen, psychologist).
Patricia Lise Bourque