Touching Me Touching You

written by Vincent Meelberg

One thing social distancing has taught us is how important touch is for us human beings. When people do not have the possibility to physically touch other people they can develop a condition called touch starvation or touch deprivation. Touch starvation increases stress, depression, and anxiety, which in turn may result in serious health problems such as headaches, depression, and chronic pain. 

And yet, touch seems to be a rather neglected human sense that, at least until recently, we took for granted. Vision, on the other hand, is usually regarded as the most important means by which human subjects acquire knowledge regarding the world, and ever since the visual turn theory has focused on that sense primarily. Hearing, too, is increasingly regarded as a sense worthy of study as well. Touch, however, remains rather undertheorized, at least in cultural studies.

Nevertheless, on October 4, 2021, the US physiologist David Julius and the Lebanese-American molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the receptors of nerve cells that allow us to feel heat, cold, pain, and touch. Thanks to these receptors the nervous system is able to detect what the positions of our bodies are, where the arms and leg are, to feel the heat of a warm drink, or the sun on our faces. Without these facilities we would not be able to survive, as through touch we are able to establish contact with the outside world. Also, touch enables us to manipulate and interact with our environment. And interpersonal contact, let alone intimate contact, depends on touch as well. Touch thus seems to be rather important after all, and the pandemic has reminded us of its importance.

Touch is crucial for direct interpersonal contact. According to Matthew Fulkerson interpersonal contact can be established through what he calls affiliative touch: affiliative touch involves contact through touch with another person. Direct affiliative, interpersonal touch is quite intimate, sometimes erotic even. Caressing another person’s body, or kissing someone else’s lips, are examples of quite intimate and affective acts of affiliative touch. 

Affiliative touch can also be distal, indirect, or mediated. This may sound paradoxical, but Fulkerson explains that “[…] through touch we are sensitive to pressure waves and vibrations, as well as other similar signals, and these stimuli are capable of travel through media just like light and sound waves. It thus makes sense that our touch receptors could bring us into contact with distal objects or features, especially when there is a strong mutual informational link between the distal object and our bodies supported by our exploratory actions” (Fulkerson, Matthew. 2014. The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 150). 

And this is how cultural practices such as theatre and musical performances work. These practices establish interpersonal contact through distal affiliative touch. Sounds touch the eardrums, as well as the entire body, of the audience. The actual physical presence of actors on stage can almost literally be felt. We feel the movements of dancers in our own bodies while watching a dance performance. And this is an experience that cannot be had, at least not in the same manner and with the same intensity, by watching or listening to a recording of such performances. These recordings simply do not have the capacity to touch an audience in the way a live performance can. Experiencing performances via recordings only may ultimately even lead to touch starvation as well, albeit of a different kind. 

Despite the somewhat derogatory comment made by the Dutch Secretary of Health, Hugo de Jonge, that one can easily compensate for not being able to visit live performances during the pandemic by watching a DVD, live performances are essential to our mental health. They are not only essential because artistic practices in general may be beneficial to both practitioners and audiences alike, but also because these performances allow for different ways to be touched, to be caressed by the physical presence of performers on stage. Live performances create possibilities for affiliative touch, and as such may help to prevent touch deprivation. In short: in times of social distancing the performing arts are sorely needed.

Touching the surface

By Vincent Meelberg

Touch might be the most important sense we
human beings have. Touch puts us in direct, constant contact with the outside
world. And perhaps that might be the reason why this sense is so problematic.
Touch implies intimacy and closeness, and these are phenomena that the
(Western) world finds increasingly difficult to cope with. On the one hand, we
are no longer sure when it is appropriate to touch someone. On
the other hand, however, the temptation to touch is always present. This is one
of the reasons why New York City Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Chair of the Task
Force on Women’s Issues Aravella Simotas
recently announced the passage of
 to assure that a sentence of up to one year of
imprisonment may be imposed for a person “who makes inappropriate physical contact with
another person while traveling on a mode of public transportation.” Apparently people are so eager to touch others, even without consent, that they need a law to hold them back.

Yet, as many studies have shown, physical contact between human beings – provided it is mutually agreed upon – is vital. Physical contact and reassurance will make
people more secure and better able to form relationships. David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The
Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
adds during an interview in The Atlantic: “More
than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat.
Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to
encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning
better.“ And let’s face it: it is often simply very enjoyable to be
touched and to touch someone else.


Interestingly, the way we interact with
non-human entities is increasingly through direct touch as well. Until a few
years ago the way we interacted with phones and computers was by pushing
buttons. And while pushing implies touching too, this interaction remained very
indirect. One never really had the sensation of literally touching the
information that was being manipulated by the touching of buttons. All this
changed with the introduction of the iPhone. One of the reasons this device became such a huge
success was its user interface. Instead of trying to hit the correct tiny
physical buttons in order to write an email, for instance, suddenly the user
could type directly on the screen and had the possibility to literally touch
the Internet via multi-touch. It indeed was a magical experience, as Steve Jobs
liked to stress over and over again.


Nowadays, most phones use multi-touch, and
tablets such as the iPad could not have existed without this technology. So,
what does the fact that we have no problem touching the surface of our devices,
but are very reluctant to touch another person, say about Western society? Have
we arrived at a stage where we are more comfortable
being intimate with our phones than with human beings? When we take into
account that we use these devices to communicate with other people and that
direct personal contact is gradually being superseded by these mediated forms
of communication, the pessimistic conclusion might be that direct interpersonal
relations are indeed becoming increasingly rare, and therefore touching someone
may become the exception rather than the rule.


I think I need a hug…