Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th Ed.) offers many more definitions of touch than I list below. I sought a broad representation with as few of words as possible.
As a verb:
1. to bring a bodily part into contact with esp. so as to perceive through the tactile sense, handle or feel gently usu. with the intent to understand or appreciate <loved to ~ the soft silk>
2. to strike or push lightly esp. with the hand or foot or an implement
As a noun:
1. a light stroke tap, or push.
2. the special sense by which pressure or traction exerted on the skin or mucous membrane is perceived
The mapping of touch in the brain is pretty cool. Located in the parietal lobe, the primary somatosensory cortex is aligned with each body part (Okami, 2014). For example, you prick your index finger and the sensation signal is sent directly to that link on the strip. In fact, these areas were identified in research by looking at which site lights up when a body part is touched. It is here that signals regarding heat, cold, pain, and touch are received and interpreted. Not only does each body part have a designated region (e.g., wrist, ankle) in the cortex, body parts with high sensitivity have larger corresponding neural areas. This includes the lips and the hands, leading to a distorted, circus mirror like effect, when drawing the somatosensory strip. The sensory information is first received in the thalamus, situated at the base of the forebrain, before being relayed to the cerebral cortex.
Harry Harlow conducted studies in the 1950s to explore what drives love with the maternal figure. It had been assumed that the mechanism was the source of needed substance. His work on monkeys showed us that meeting basic needs wasn’t sufficient. Monkey infants were randomized to be fed from a wire monkey or a cloth monkey. Even the monkeys fed from a wire monkey sought comfort from the cloth monkey. Touch was key and superseded the source of feeding. The cloth monkey served as a safe base for exploration and a source of comfort.
I volunteer at the SF SPCA where I socialize with cats. They have found that their cats and dogs fall ill if not touched. We are that little monkey, that shelter cat, out in the world seeking contact, a safe space. In engaging in the following exercises, consider how touch as well as temperature sensation shapes you and your relationship with self, others, and the world.
Concrete Tools for Touch
1. Tactile sense isn’t limited to the hands. A quick tool to ground self in the moment is to think of where your feet are placed and what they are touching. If you are sitting, think about the pressure on your butt and your back. Take a particular body part and pause to consider what is pressing against the part. If the cheek, it may be the wind or rain drops. If the thigh, it could be the texture of the slacks you are wearing. Be flexible in scanning your body to determine the physical sensations accompanying each part.
2. Carry around a piece of cloth: something with a distinct texture that is stimulating or calming. You can surreptitiously reach into your purse, wallet, or pocket to rub your fingers slowly against the material. Another option is to carry around a pebble: smooth or rough as is your preference.
3. Identify a hobby that incorporates touch. This might be a musical instrument such as piano, cello, or drums. This could be car mechanics or drawing or knitting. The hobby might be new or something rekindled. The key is that hand movement and feeling is a component of the exercise.
4. Applying Harlow’s study to your immediate social network, consider people with whom you would feel comfortable increasing touch. Then practice. Use touch by tapping the shoulder, or wrapping the person into a hug, or patting the back. Examine for yourself how your experience in these relationships shift. Touch is not possible via social media such as Facebook, Instragram, or Twitter. Let’s highlight the importance of physical contact by engaging in active touch when possible.
5. Temperature is also received and interpreted in the primary somatosensory cortex. As part of the building up the tactile sense, consider variations in temperature. Pause when taking your shower to consider the heat along parts of your body. Pause when outside: if winter, consider the cold against ungloved hands or, if summer, experience the potential humid heat as being wrapped in a tight blanket.