Touch May Be the Least Understood Sense

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Photo: Peter Pham / EyeEm

You sleepily reached over for your smartphone to snooze the alarm. You squeezed out toothpaste as you gripped your toothbrush, felt the fleece was too flouncy and chose ridged corduroy instead, slipped your subway card in your pocket as you balanced a scrubby, sticky Styrofoam coffee cup in your hands.

And those are only some of the things you touched this morning. But what if you chronicled everything your fingers came across throughout a day? Paula Zuccotti, an Argentinian photographer, has just released a book, Every Thing We Touch, a 24-hour inventory of our lives, chronicling the items 70 people from around the world touch during the course of 24 hours. The photos range from the expected (shoes, vegetables, and spoons) to the quirky (a stuffed sheep, a dragon puppet, a tattoo gun), reports the BBC.

Zuccotti’s collection of photos highlights that what we touch is integral to who we are and how we find comfort. Consider that moment in the sleeper French hit Amelie, when an unseen narrator mentions how Audrey Tautou’s character finds comfort in digging her fingers into sacks of grain. But to scientists, touch is a very mysterious sensation. 

Most are adamant that it’s a healthy, necessary thing in people’s lives, from babies in the womb through their infant years. Researchers have just discovered that there are culturally different body parts where people are more comfortable with a person touching, depending on their connection to the person. And it seems like our skin is somehow “wired” for touch, with neurons devoted exclusively to feeling the most fleeting of touches, such as a brush or a vibration.

The role of touching objects, particularly for comfort, is less understood – and a long-standing curiosity. In 1895, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a study in which 51 participants were asked to rub 51 cloths of different textures and report which of these evoked some “pleasant” feeling; in 1937, it was confirmed that humans find smooth and soft materials “relaxing.” Surprise!

 But our understanding of what we find comforting to run our fingers through, at least when it comes to fabrics, has solidified. Researchers now know what we prefer to touch or not touch is deeply embedded within our psyche from past experiences and our environment. A study from earlier this year indicates that patients about to slip into surgery prefer the tactile sensation of a stress ball to having a significant other to ease anxiety. As for security blankets, well-worn teddy bears, or other plush toys people aged 2 months to 92 years reach out to? It all goes back to history and attachment: knowing that inanimate object was with you when you were scared as a child is comforting.

That might not justify you wearing a Snuggie to the office, but it’s worth a try.