by Desmond Morris

It's the most neglected of our senses but, as a major new exhibition reveals, it shapes every moment of our lives

DO YOU keep in touch with your friends? I don't mean by mobile phone or e-mail. I am talking about physical touching.

Do you, for instance, kiss old friends on the cheek when you greet them? Do you give them a hug? And with new babies, do you spend a little extra time just holding them and cuddling them?

Are you, by nature, at ease with body contact, or are you more reserved and protective of your 'personal space'?

The truth is that, however we answer these questions, most of us are inept when it comes to our sense of touch. Of our five senses, it is by far the most neglected.

If you doubt me, find a book written in Braille and run your fingertips over the pages. All you will feel is a lot of little bumps. But a blind person would be able to read the whole of Shakespeare that way.

Now an exciting new exhibition that opened this week at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London aims to reawaken our interest in the world of tactile sensations.

Called Touch Me, it encourages us to explore a whole range of novel sensations as we pass through its various installations and exhibits.

There are some fascinating contradictions here, with objects that look familiar turning out to have a quite unexpected feel. Hard materials look soft, and soft things look hard. We cannot rely upon our eyes — only by touching can we find the truth.

I will not spoil the surprises that the exhibition has in store for you. Suffice to say that it features a strokeable TV, wallpaper that responds to body heat by changing colour, and even a jacket that lights up when you hug someone.

It is so full of novel sensations that it is enormous fun. But at the same time, it should give us pause to consider how little attention we give to tactile sensations in ordinary, everyday life.

HOW do these sensations begin? The  answer lies inside the womb, for it was there, snugly wrapped up inside our mother's flesh, that we began to experience bodily sensation for the first time. The tightness of her body's embrace represented security of a kind we will never experience  again in such  a complete  form.  As we grew, this embrace became tighter and tighter until suddenly we were jettisoned into the outside world. In a moment, her embrace was gone and we screamed and  waved  our limbs  about  in  a desperate attempt to regain it.

If we were lucky, she was allowed to offer us a new embrace — the embrace of her arms — as we lay exhausted on the front of her body, moments alter being born.

In many modern hospitals, instead of immediately taking the baby away from the mother to clean it and check its condition, it is left on her naked body to recover from the shock of birth while still in physical contact with her. When this is done, newborn babies cry very little.

Physical intimacy between mother and baby is also important during the days following the birth. For example, in America, tests were conducted on premature babies. Usually, these tiny beings are placed in incubators and kept isolated from all forms of human contact.

This is done because they are thought to be too weak to resist common infections. But a hospital in San Francisco decided to risk trying a new method of caring for premature babies, allowing their mothers to take them out of their incubators for several hours each day to cuddle them.

The results were astonishing. The babies did twice as well as those that lacked this body contact.

Apart from breast-feeding, the greatest contact reward for a baby is the feel of its mother's embrace. When it is too young to run to her arms, it must try other ways of encouraging her to do this.

One way is by smiling, a unique human signal that is so appealing, the mother does not want to break contact. Another is crying, which brings the mother running to offer a protective cuddle. A third is reaching out for the mother, inviting her to offer an embrace. If she does not come close enough, the baby may clap its hands together.

The baby is, in effect, 'embracing the air' and the result is a bringing together of its hands with a sudden noise. This is the origin of adult clapping, when people wish to embrace a performer but cannot reach them, so applaud instead.

But as the child develops, it wants to become more independent. 'Hold me tight' becomes 'Put me down'. An older child rarely runs to hug its parents. It 'stands on its own two feet'. Touching happens less and less.

The parents are often worried by this and insist on holding hands with their children as the family crosses a road, or walks down a busy street. Eventually the children will reject this, too, as they try to become more grown-up. They are embarrassed if their parents fuss over them, especially in public.

Then, with the arrival of puberty, body contact becomes even more restricted between parent and child, because now touching the body becomes confused with sexual advances. And different parts of the body become 'out of bounds'.

Then, as sexual interest in the opposite sex becomes more important, friendships blossom into new, loving attachments. Young couples soon increase their body intimacies.

It is as if the whole process is being put into reverse. Just as the total body-intimacy of babies with their parents has gradually decreased until there is hardly anything left, so the small contacts of the new lovers grow-and grow until, with the full sexual act, they have once again returned to the full body intimacy of childhood.

Of course, for much of the time when we are moving about in public and, for that matter, when we are relaxing at home, we do not make physical contact with one another at all.

But there is one special situation in which contact of some kind often does reappear between adults. This is when we are greeting someone or saying goodbye.

Greetings and farewells involve all kinds of special ceremonies, and vary widely from culture to culture. Most commonly they involve kissing cheek to cheek, shaking hands or embracing.

The people we are meeting have been out of our reach for some time. We need to re-establish our contact with them. In a sense we need to offer them the intimacies they have been missing during their absence.

And when we say goodbye, we need to offer them some form of contact that must last them for the time while they are away. So greetings and farewells are special moments when human body-touching can be observed in many fascinating forms.

BUT for many people, the way they live in modern society leaves them starved of physical contact. Surrounded by strangers in their crowded lives, they have to learn to keep their distance. If they have no children, or if their children have grown up and left home, there is very little intimacy available to them.

Their solution is to look for substitutes of some kind. The most popular of all intimacy-substitutes today is the pet. If you have no human body available for hugging, you pat your dog or stroke your cat.

Another is personal grooming. Today, a great deal of our grooming is done alone, by ourselves for ourselves, but it is worth remembering that, before there were mirrors, all human body decoration was done by one individual to another.

These non-aggressive contacts were important in strengthening the bonds between adult individuals in a completely non- sexual way.

Such non-sexual activities still occur when an adult visits a hairdresser or a beauty salon. There is a special comfort to be obtained from these grooming sessions, in addition to obtaining the final, visual effect.

This is something we have in common with other animals. Many species also spend hours grooming one another as a way of maintaining friendly relations — birds preen one another and monkeys clean one another's fur.
So how can we increase the more appealing forms of touching? How can we improve and refine the use of our sense of touch in the future? Perhaps we need to think again about the ways in which we make contact with our loved ones. Perhaps greater body intimacy given to our infants would help them in later life.

We know that babies starved of holding, embracing, touching and breast-feeding in childhood will be badly programmed for loving intimacy when they eventually become adults.

Deprivation of childhood touching can lead to adult neuroses. It may not be suitable in crowded cities to increase body-contacts in the public arena, but perhaps in our own homes we should all learn to express our­selves with slightly less inhibition than we have shown in the past.