October 20, 2007
Touch: An Underused Ancient Modality
Primates were remarkably observant, weren't they? Early primates learned from each other by paying attention to our most basic senses, much more so than we do today.
We learned from each other through observation and through touching one another. Primates are extraordinary and unusual among mammals in that our sense of our environment has largely been through vision and touch. Equal to touch is hearing and far below that is our sense of smell. Touch is part of our legacy as primates for the past 40 million years.
Anthropologist and professor Nina Jablowski is on the PopTech stage talking to us about touch. She asks us to turn to our neighbor, someone we preferably don't know and touch their skin, hold their hand, observe their skin, all without saying a word.
And so we did. I've done this kind of thing in workshops before, but never one that has been led by an anthropologist. If you have ever tried it, you know that its an awkward exercise EVEN if you're comfortable with human contact.
We don't really touch anymore. We don't observe through touch anymore, at least not on a daily basis. We use touch in the bedroom, we use touch when we hug children or a parent, but not necessarily to learn from each other or observe each other.
Says Nina, "humans are self-decorating apes. We do it with great intention and meaning. Cosmetics are used to highlight features that are sexually attractive and we have had the ability to make tattoos for over 5,000 years ago.
She encourages us to really think about not forfeiting your primateness when we communicate with others. "The depth and breadth of that bandwidth is extraordinary and even with most advanced technology cannot give us the feeling and the connectedness that ancient and well-adapted modalities from 40 million years ago.....like touch."
She ends with two photographs of people hugging and asks us to make sure do it today. Touch. Hug. Engage. And observe while you do it. "This," she says in a tender voice, "is truly what it means to be human." She certainly knows how to invoke a reaction, particularly from an audience that spends so more time physically connected to machines than humans. Check out Nina's book: The Skin: A Natural History.
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