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Living out of touch

03 April 2020

Chris Brown thinks about the sense that is, perhaps, the least valued . . . until it is made impossible


TOUCH is the first sense that we develop in the womb, and may be the very last sensory comfort that we are offered as we die. Between those moments, there are trillions of experiences of touch which become woven into conscious and subconscious neural pathways.

It is irresistible to want to analyse such an important topic; and, of course, academic discourses are respected in our society — as non-verbal shared knowledge is not. But how can one generalise about this dynamic complexity in elite sociological or scientific texts? There are some things that, if spoken of, are immediately devalued.

Launched in association with the Wellcome Collection, Claudia Hammond’s new research project on social attitudes to touch is both valuable and in danger of killing the very thing that, she suggests, we should value more.

Hammond’s project took the premise, I believe, that, increasingly, people mourn the loss of tactile comfort. Touch has never been acceptable outside strict norms, but, even before the coronavirus, these norms had become stricter. In 1973, a GP diagnosed a “no touching epidemic” in the UK (BMJ, 14 April).

Norman Autton’s study Touch: An exploration (DLT, 1989) develops this. Autton, at the time of writing a hospital chaplain and Chancellor of Llandaff Cathedral, offered a survey of post-war research showing that “Anglo-Saxon” and Germanic cultures were less tactile than Latin, Russian, Black, and Jewish cultures.

Just as his racial categories would now be expressed differently, touch is also being re-evaluated in terms of gender. Then, there is class: the strong social lesson that a superior — in terms of status or income — may initiate touch with an inferior, but not the other way round.

The intervening decades between Autton and Hammond have brought an increasing awareness of sexual abuse. This awareness has offered a path to liberation for people who have been abused, and a degree of protection for potential victims. None the less, sacramental and intuitive understanding of human touch is in danger of being desecrated by the way in which abuse dominates the present discourse.


MUCH of Autton’s book on the power of touch would now be seriously questioned. But his central premise holds. From his professional experience as a priest and chaplain, and personal experience in L’Arche communities, backed up by medical research, he asserts the necessity of touch for human well-being.

Mention of L’Arche will meet with cynically raised eyebrows now, after the revelations about its founder. But should the selfishness of a few create desolation for all? When my daughter, then aged four, broke her collarbone at school, she was “correctly” left alone for more than an hour, sitting on a plastic chair, until we could be contacted and could collect her.

Contrast this with the tender care of the French village primary-school teacher in the documentary Être et Avoir (2002), who daily dispensed French verbs, maths, and appropriate physical nurture to all his charges on his own.

I can vividly remember my breakdown into depression and anorexia in my first term away from home, and the humiliation of blurting out to a kind listener the unconscious sum of my litany of woes: “No one touches me!”

That humiliation, realising that I craved something that I should not have to ask for, is what both inspires my gift of massage, and conversely makes me recoil when anyone asks for a hug. No one should ever have to ask, in naked, vulnerable words, for love. Such an exchange debases the giver and the gift.

Genuine touch and love are spontaneous, mutual, equal — offered and exchanged at a level beyond words or calculation, whether between a dental nurse and a nervous patient or a married couple.


GIVEN the power of touch and its subjectivity, it is no wonder that Hammond’s Touch Test — an online survey — appreciates the sensitivity of some of its questions, and offers various “crash pads” if any questions trigger emotional reactions in participants.

But, however sensitive it seeks to be, a questionnaire on this topic seems to be a clumsy research tool. The answers to survey questions cannot easily divide people into “touchy-feely” and “distant” types. It all depends.

Take hugs, for example. I have close family members and friends with whom I exchange hugs. One has perfected the art of hugging with locked arms, to minimise any closeness. One hugs with the possessiveness of an octopus. One hugs with awkward ambivalence. One hugs and reveals a disturbingly skeletal body. One hugs with a power that is at the same time yielding. It is the same action, but with very different memories, interpretations, messages, and mutual experience.


If we really must examine touch, then, let us aim for precision. Autton gives a useful triad: passive touch (with values such as soothing, caring, tenderness); self-touching (exploration, self-stimulation, and self-control); and active touching (exploring, communicating, signalling).

Another study (“Psychologic effects of caregiver touch in incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia”, Heart and Lung, 1986), by S. J. Weiss, defines four primary qualities of a touch: location, intensity, action, and duration.

A moment’s reflection will show that, even before putting social contexts and relationships, memory, and physique into the equation, a hug is never just a hug.

Perhaps that is why some people find touching during the Peace anything but peaceful. If just one handshake reveals the reality of one neighbour’s physical or emotional being in a new way (though texture, temperature, impact, proximity, etc.), and communicates one’s own, what fresh information must be processed and acted on in genuine love, if this is not to be an empty gesture? For many, this interrupts their sense of shared peace achieved simply by engaging in the same act of worship.


THEN, there is the research into gender, too, which indicates that my gender and yours will affect my opinions and your interpretation. It is said that girl babies are more sensitive to touch than boy babies, but are generally offered less in our society. Perhaps that is why women exchange more touch than men (Autton).

So here we are, in this time of coronavirus: more acutely aware of the sacramental gift of touch, and forbidden it. Careful attunement to our physical reality and the people whom we touch puts wads of academic research into better context. And, yes, there has been plenty of academic research by nurses and therapists, in English, not to mention a whole school of haptonomie in Holland and France after the last war, inspired by the urgent need to understand the effects of the Holocaust and systematic violation of the human body in war. This has borne fruit in, for example, Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence (1975), and touch therapies.

Our dilemma could not be greater, setting documented neo-natal mortality from untouched babies in orphanages, continual revelations of sexual abuse of adults and children, physical abuse, and gestures misused (consciously or unconsciously) to diminish others against well-documented, therapeutic, and beneficial touch in clinics and in ordinary, loving homes.

Nothing, perhaps, could illustrate better the predicament of humanity after tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.


THERE is hope. If our primary caregiver is God, primary touch can recalibrate clumsy human touch, or supply its lack, once we are beyond unconscious babyhood. Gary Chapman’s bold claim in The Five Love Languages (1992) is that we all understand these five languages ourselves very well as newborns — and, supremely, touch. The more we “hear” these languages, the more we develop the capacity to “speak” them to one another, although we tend to develop proficiency in one or two over the others.

His model — and the corollary, that we can become deaf to the languages of love which we hear around us, or unable to speak them fluently, lost in a Babel of misunderstanding — is illuminating enough for anyone puzzled by the breakdown of a relationship.

Apply this model to our spiritual relationship with God for another revelation. If few people in our culture give and receive the physical gift of touching with any fluency, it is unsurprising that touch may seem odd or inappropriate in the spiritual life.

Chapman refers to John Wesley’s experience of the burning in his chest as a famous example of how God can be experienced physically; but Anglicans — who want to stay Anglicans, at any rate — do not, as a rule, record physical ecstasy or warmth, kiss icons, spin, swoon, or incorporate exercise and dance into prayer. Other traditions do, though.

There is a theological reason for portraying the newborn Christ laid, vulnerable and alone, in a manger. It is the price of incarnation. Perhaps, though, paintings and statues of the Madonna and Child as they embrace move us more.

The icon of the first Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his finger stretched out to God — or is it God’s finger reaching for Adam? — remains a potent icon within the old three-storey universe. And, in grief, I can feel the force of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line: “Over again I feel thy finger and find thee” (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”).

People are valiantly advancing many silver linings in this extraordinary experience of social distancing and isolation. The one that I hear most often is a new realisation of how much we need one another. There is a resolve to appreciate and offer, as never before, loving touch when it is restored to us.

Is it still allowable to sing in the mean time, if only to ourselves, a favourite L’Arche hymn?

Les mains de Dieu se sont posées
Sur nos visages de misère,
Les mains de Dieu ont caressé nos coeurs meurtris
Pour apaiser enfin le feu de nos douleurs.
Poserons-nous ainsi nos mains?

(The hands of God are placed on our sad faces. The hands of God have stroked our bruised hearts to put out the fire of our sufferings at last. Shall we place our hands like this, too?)

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