Book Review: Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind

Neurophysiologist David J. Linden’s fascinating and eminently readable new book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, opens with a clever little story from the author’s adolescence, with he and a group of friends sitting around a summertime campfire playing the “what if?” game. Among the questions asked: What if you had to give up all of your senses but one — which would you keep? Thus begins a charming rumination on the power and importance of touch.

My initial answer to Linden’s campfire question was “sight” – I’m a writer, after all, and I like to see my computer screen. However, by page five of the book my mind had changed. As Linden writes, “People who are blind or deaf from birth will for the most part develop normal bodies and brains (apart from the visual or auditory areas) and can live rich and fruitful lives. But deprive a newborn of social touch, as occurred in grossly understaffed Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and 1990s, and a disaster unfolds: Growth is slowed, compulsive rocking and other self-soothing behaviors emerge, and, if not rectified, emergent disorders of mood, cognition, and self-control can persist through adulthood.” In other words, as Linden states very clearly, “Touch is not optional for human development.” If human beings are not touched in appropriate and loving ways, then their lives are much more likely to go off the rails.

And it’s not just humans who need touch for proper development and socialization. Linden walks us through rats and monkeys and all sorts of other creatures who need healthy touch to grow, to bond and to communicate. Linden doesn’t mention cats, but I see the need in my constant companion, Gracie – a beat-up stray who wandered into my house one night and seemed far more interested in snuggling than in being fed. Even today, many months later, she spends at least 10 or 15 minutes each morning standing on my lap and leaning into my chest, purring loudly while I rub her chin, cheeks and ears and she, in turn, licks my fingers and wrists and any other exposed skin that she can find. And even though being licked repeatedly by wet, hot, tuna-scented sandpaper might sound a little bit awful, I can assure you that my stress level invariably drops both during and after this daily event. In fact, this is the best part of my day – and Gracie’s too, I suspect.

Not all touch is the same, of course, and nobody knows this better than love and sex addicts (such as myself). Linden does not address this topic directly in Touch – it is simply beyond the scope of his investigation – but he does write that “the tactile perception of an around-the-shoulder squeeze from a domineering boss feels fundamentally different from the same gesture received from a good friend, which in turn feels different from that of a lover.” In other words, context and life experience are incredibly important with touch. Essentially, the raw input of tactile sensations is combined with emotional history – and that is what we experience when we are touched.

Is it any wonder that love and sex addicts often report that we were either touched very little as children, or that we were touched in ways that made us feel highly uncomfortable? Put simply, love and sex addicts almost universally state that we never learned the healthy socialization associated with touch because we did not receive healthy touch early in life. Because of this, we typically don’t use nonsexual touch (or even sexual touch) as part of healthy emotional bonding and attachment (as most non-addicts do). Instead of seeking warmth, we seek intensity. Instead of seeking lasting emotional connection, we seek transitory distraction. So yeah, as love and sex addicts we experience touch a bit differently than most other people. Happily, understanding this can be an important element of our healing process.

Overall, David J. Linden’s Touch is a charming read that explains the science of touch in easily understandable terms. Anyone who is interested in human interactions and emotional connections will find this book interesting. Just as important, men and women who deal with intimacy disorders – including love and sex addiction – are likely to find this book enlightening from a disease and recovery standpoint. As such, Touch is highly recommended for all recovering love and sex addicts, especially those who were victimized by either lack of touch or excessive touch in childhood. Family members and therapists of love and sex addicts might also benefit from reading this book.

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