“Are we doing this again?” My patient asked as we stood awkwardly in an exam room with our right hands hanging in midair. Those hands would normally have met in a firm grasp, but not today.
I have about seven minutes in my general surgery office to convince someone that I can safely remove their gallbladder or repair their hernia. I frequently try to reassure them with a handshake or gentle pat on the shoulder. With COVID, however, any unnecessary contact has been discouraged. But that’s not the way we’re designed. Humans need touch as much as sound, vision, or even smell to connect deeply with each other. Without it, there’s a lingering doubt about our intent, which is troubling when planning an invasive surgical procedure.
Bonding through Touch Begins Early
Long before people can express themselves with language or symbols, we interact with the world through touch. A baby’s neural pathways form while fumbling over things. When they’re stressed, they cry to be held for comfort. And with the gentle pressure and warmth of an embrace, they learn to regulate their emotions with their parent. If a parent is distracted or absent for long periods of time, neural connections fail to form. The broken bonds can lead to sensory processing problems later and even an increased risk of autism. From the beginning, we are fragile and utterly dependent on each other.
Touch is much more complicated than it seems. It’s transmitted in two ways: discriminative touch and social touch. In discriminative touch, neural fibers work fast. Their sensors, scattered all over our bodies, give us and the objects around us a sense of position. They are super-helpful for avoiding an oncoming truck, for example. Social touch sensors are located in places like our fingertips or neck. They transmit through slower pathways called CT (C-tactile) fibers to the areas in our brain that create emotions. So whether we give or receive a gentle caress, CT fibers signal our brains to release oxytocin, which mediates pleasure and comfort. The oxytocin reward from that touch can be more powerful than the effects of a drug such as cocaine.1 In this way, our brains feel the touch of the outside world.
Humans experience almost all touch as a combination of both discriminative and social systems, much like a musical chord rather than a single note. The “touch harmonies” take on their full meaning in the experience of a person-to-person interaction. The physical location, our expectations,—be it a stranger or friend—and the intent of the interaction set the stage. At the same time, we visually read the person’s body language and hear the tone of their voice. It all comes together in fractions of a second. Our perception of touch can even be altered with something as simple as a facial expression.
We All Need a Meaningful Touch
I consider this scientific understanding of touch as I gaze over my mask in the exam room. I’m protecting my patient by not touching him. My intent is for his good. But, does that make him feel unclean? He needs reassurance that he’s going to heal. A reassurance that has dimmed during COVID. How can we recapture the beautiful harmonies that could be created?
Touch or the laying on of hands is seen frequently throughout the Bible. Touch bestows God’s blessings or his favor. By touch, people in the Old Testament passed on a formal birthright, and today we lay hands on a missionary when sending them into the field. Jesus frequently used words to connect to people, but he also touched their ailing bodies. He rubbed dirt onto the eyes of a blind man and that man went home seeing. When a woman touched his garment, she was healed of a long-time affliction. And when Jesus addressed a crowd in Judea, parents sent their children to him to be touched and held and loved—even though the disciples tried to brush them away.
I stepped forward and grasped my patient’s hand in both of mine. “Yep, we’re doing this again,” I said. We take risks when forming relationships, whether they’re brief and professional or deeply committed. And touch is an important part of growing that relationship.
When I search for God’s touch, I feel him in the crash of an ocean wave or the gentle sea foam bubbles that tickle my nose as I come up for air. I feel his tenderness in the breeze teasing across my skin or the plop of a raindrop when there’s a storm coming. He is still intimately involved in his creation and undeniably still in touch with me and with all those who have placed their trust in him.