The significance of ‘skinship’

When it comes to love nothing is more important than touching

I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch I just want someone to talk to And a little of that human touch Just a little of that human touch

—Bruce Springsteen, “Human Touch”

Of all the ways we express love, touching is the most important. Indeed, we define our circles of love in terms of touching, with those in the closest circle—our lovers, our children, our siblings, our parents—being those we touch most often and most intimately.

The scientific name for the sense of touch is the “somatic sensory system,” or “body-sensing system,” a name that reminds us that our entire body, inside and out, is a touching system.

Consider the skin: It’s not only the outer layer that we present to the world, it’s also the largest organ in the body. It weighs about eight pounds, stretches about 22 square feet, and has about 300 million cells and 5 million sensory nerve receptors, all of them exposed to the world and ready to register heat, cold, roughness, softness and multitudes of other sensations and send them to the brain.

The skin wants to be touched. We know that babies who aren’t touched waste away and die. There were times in America when the mortality rate among babies in orphanages was nearly 100 percent because they weren’t touched and held enough.

The late Ashley Montagu, in his magisterial book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, tells of an American doctor, Fritz Talbot, who, just before World War I, while being shown over the wards by the director of a children’s clinic in Germany, Dr. Arthur Schlossmann, observed “a fat old woman carrying a measly baby on her hip. ‘Who’s that?’ inquired Dr. Talbot. ‘Oh, that,’ replied Schlossmann, ‘is Old Anna. When we have done everything we can medically for a baby, and it is still not doing well, we turn it over to Old Anna, and she is always successful.’”

We know, too, that when children aren’t touched, or when they’re touched unkindly, beaten or abused, it has consequences far into adulthood. Our prisons are filled with people, most of them men, who were neglected or beaten as children and as a result are filled with pain, anger and hostility that lead them to continue the cycle of violence.

Like your other senses, touch is not located just in the sensory receptors, in this case the nerve endings in the skin. The message your hand sends to your brain when you touch a hot stove takes the form of electrical pulses to your neurons, special cells that relay electrochemical impulses. The sensory neurons then act like a relay team, passing along the impulses to your spinal cord and thence to your brain. The brain translates the electrical signal and tells you to remove your hand.

Of course, this all happens at the speed of light. Your brain knows hot surfaces and acts instantly to protect you from burning. But it’s important to remember that the sense of touch is not located just in your skin—that the touch receptors in your skin are part of the larger nervous system radiating out from the brain.

The body is constantly feeling sensations. We ignore most of them to concentrate on what is immediately important to us, but if we stop and observe all the ways we’re being touched at any moment, we realize that no one part of our body is experiencing touch—our entire body is feeling it.

Right now, as I type this, I feel my hands on the keyboard, the press of the chair against my back and hips, a tense muscle in my shoulder and a bit of hunger in my belly, since it’s been several hours since I last ate. I am aware that my brain is receiving all of these messages and translating them simultaneously, and I feel deeply appreciative of the miracle of my ability to feel these sensations.

We recognize the importance of touch in myriad ways, from shaking hands upon meeting each other—a lovely ritual, if you think about it—to tickling a baby’s feet and caressing a lover.

Indeed, touching is the first language of sex, and in no other activity is the skin so totally involved. Montagu notes that “sex, indeed, has been called the highest form of touch.”

The extent to which a person enjoys the touching involved in sex has much to do with how much tender, loving touching he or she experienced as a child, especially as a young child. “The … evidence is so abundant,” he writes, “which shows that those individuals who have been adequately mothered are clearly superior in all tactile relationships to those who have not. … Apparently adequate mothering is necessary for the development of healthy sexual behavior.”

Montagu was writing in 1971, and today, when more men are intimately involved in providing tender, loving care to their children, it may be appropriate to substitute “parenting” for “mothering.” The important thing, he wanted readers to know, is for children to receive plenty of touching and physical comforting, whether it’s from a mother breastfeeding a child or a father changing her diaper or rocking her to sleep.

The Japanese have a beautiful word for it: sukinshippu, which means “skinship.” It’s a pseudo-English word coined to describe the closeness between a mother and a child, but according to Wikipedia it generally is used to mean “bonding through physical contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or parents washing their child at a bath.”

Skinship is good for us. Studies have shown that touching reduces blood pressure and heart rate, increases immune function and relieves pain. Whether it’s getting a massage, hugging a friend, holding hands with your honey or making love, we all need “a little of that human touch.”