Have you ever considered your skin a “social organ?” We tend to think of our skin as a protective layer that gives us sensory information about the temperature, humidity and pressure of the air or objects around us. In his book, The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, David Linden describes the skin as a tool we use to connect with others and read social cues.
Social theory on the subject of touch has varied. In the early 20th century, physicians told parents to keep touch to a minimum in order to prevent childhood infectious diseases. Stories were fabricated to pressure parents not to “baby” their children with affection; lest they grow up to be languid ne’er do wells with no ambition. But by the 1950’s touch (or the lack of it) was receiving scientific scrutiny.
Harry Harlow’s famous monkey experiments in the 1950’s were done to prove that children, particularly infants, required touch to develop healthy psychological attachments to their caregivers. Then, in the early 1990’s, Harlow’s theories were proved when the tragic consequences of Romania’s overpopulated orphanages were made public: infants deprived of human touch died, they needed more nurturing contact than being fed and changed.
Our need for touch does not dissipate as we grow out of infancy, but American culture discourages touch. Our society has reacted to those who abuse touch by keeping touch to a minimum. Immigrants to the US are often confused by our physical reserve: in Senegal two men often walk down the street holding hands, in France two women can stroll along the Seine arm in arm without anyone assuming a romantic relationship between them.
Our reluctance to touch deprives us of a valuable source of social information. In her article in the March 4, 2015, issue of The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova states "Certain touch receptors exist solely to convey emotion to the brain, rather than sensory information about the external environment. A recent study shows that we can identify other people’s basic emotions based on how they touch us, even when they are separated from us by a curtain."
Touch is a gift we can give to each other. After asking permission, a platonic hug, pat on the arm or shoulder or squeeze of the hand can soothe your friend or family member’s frazzled nervous system. We are built to sense and evaluate our environment with touch, and also be soothed, nourished and comforted by touch. Our children need to experience safe appropriate touch. When they do not experience affection, children may be vulnerable to those who would provide that attention and affection in inappropriate ways.
Our sensory organs crave input. Providing safe opportunities for your skin to experience safe and comfortable touch, particularly touching other humans, is as important as providing your body with healthy food.