By john kord lagemann
DON’T LOOK AT the world with your hands in your pockets.” Mark Twain once told an aspiring young author. “To write about it you have to reach out and touch it.” I thought of this advice when I dropped in on Robert Barnitt, former executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind. Barnett was blind at the age of 14 by a shotgun blast. As we chatted he noticed, I don’t know how, that I was gazing at a life-size bronze head of Helen Keller, which he keeps near his desk.
“Feel it with your hands,” he told me. I ran my fingers over the cool metal. “Now does it look any different?” Barnett asked The difference was startling. The sculpture now had weight, depth contour and character which had escaped my eyes “Touch is more than a substitute for vision,” Barnett said. “It reveals qualities other senses can’t even suggest. One of the greatest mistakes people make is thinking you have to be blind to enjoy it.”
Learning to develop the sense of touch is something like converting the other senses to stereo. In seeing with the eyes alone we are limited to what is immediately in front of us. Touch superimposed on vision enables us to see “in the round.”
Awareness of touch can bring a new vibrancy to the most commonplace experiences. “I have just touched my dog,” wrote the young Helen Keller in her diary. “He was rolling on the grass with pleasure in every muscle and limb. I wanted to catch a picture of him in y fingers, and I touched hi lightly as I would cobwebs. But lo, his body revolved stiffened and solidified into an upright position, and his tongue gave my hand a lick. He pressed close to me as if he were fain to crowd himself into my hand. He loved it with his tail, with his paw, with his tongue. If he could speak I believe he would say with me that paradise is attired by touch.
The sense of touch is capable of extraordinary development. Expert millers can recognize any grade of flour by rubbing a little between thumb and forefinger. A textile expert can identify the dye used in a cloth by the difference it makes in the texture. The blind botanist John Grimshaw Wilkinson learned them lightly with his tongue. These feats are impressive but almost all of us are better at touching than we realize. When we reach into pocket or pocketbook it is not too difficult to pick the coin or key we want. A mother can tell by touching her wrist to a child’s forehead if his temperature is higher than normal.
The human hand is an amazingly sensitive instrument. Psychologist Dr. Frank A. Geldard of Princeton once found that many of the people he tested could identify different materials_paper, wood, metal plastic by a tap of the finger. They were also astonishingly sensitive to smoothness and roughness. Simply by running a fingertip over a slightly etched piece of glass, most of them could detect eminences no higher than 1/25,000 of an inch. Through touch we can judge with surprising accuracy any movement over the skin’s surface. The late Dr. James A. Gibson of Cornell found that when a piece of string was pulled across the skin most subjects could detect a movement as slow as one millimeter per second as slow as the number of a large clock.
A game for improving the sense of touch is to try to identify individuals by their handshakes. While blindfolded, take another person’s hand in yours, feel its size its boniness the pressure of the grip the quality of the skin. You’ll find that these clues produce an impression that is almost as individual as a signature. Touch comes to us through hundreds of thousands of receptors distributed throughout the skin. The rich and varied sensations they transmit include hardness and softness, heat and cold, smoothness and roughness, pressure, tickle, itch and thrill. The immediate cause of the sensation is displacement in skin surface by anything brought in contact with it_ a heavy weight, a drop of water a puff of air. In some regions of the skin, as on the back of your hand the bending of a single hair will be felt. Even sound waves produce a wide range of skin sensations.
While listening intently, have you ever said, “I’m all ears” ? It is literally true. We do feel sound waves through the skin. Albert Schweitzer tells how. As a boy he used to lie in the organ loft of the church where teacher practiced and feel the Bach chorales as a laying on of hands. Hi-fi addicts habitually turn up the volume because they enjoy the added intensity of sound waves striking the skin.
“Don’t touch!” we were admonished as children. But something keeps urging us to establish direct contact with things. Department stores have never been able to cure women shoppers of fingering clothes, drapes furniture even food. There is something very calming and reassuring about simply handing things. On a plane trip recently I sat beside a Greek lawyer. As we talked he likely thumbed a string of large amber beads. “I’m trying to stop smoking” he explained. “When I rub these I can do without cigarettes.” In Greece and the countries of the Middle East such “worry beads” are in the pockets of many men. In China one is apt to carry a tranquilizing piece of jade.
Touch sensations come in many ways. A woman feeling a soft fabric of a fur coat brushes it against her cheek to get the fullest pleasure. The Eskimos who rub noses instead of kissing may not be as off-base as they seem to us; the nose is ore sensitive to pressure than many other parts of the body. Next in pressure sensitivity are the fingertips the backs of fingers and the upper arm. The soles of the feet are also extremely sensitive. Yet how little conscious of them we are. At classes given to the blind housewives are advised to clean house barefoot. They can’t see the dust but they can feel it with their bare soles going barefoot around the house has more to recommend it than that however. What a pleasure to let your feet sink into the pile of a luxurious rug of touch a sun-warmed tile floor!
Experiences that heighten our tactile responsiveness give us a renewed sense of self-identity and well-being. You can easily confirm this through a simple exercise. Close your eyes and try to become aware of everything that is touching your body_ even the air on your bare skin. This is not quite as easy as it sounds. We are so used to taking the body for granted that we tend to lose contact with it. But five or ten minutes of reflection will probably give you an awareness of the entire body surface_ and with it greater physical relaxation and inward calm.
We are aware today of how important touch is to complete understanding of anything, and there are now museums that instead of the old; “Don’t touch” signs offer children the chance to touch to feel the roundness of a sculpture, the beautiful balance of an Inca pitcher the satiny patina of a Queen Anne chair, the rough iron of an early New England kettle. Visitors to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum are encouraged to pick up and handle the objects on display in every exhibit. “If they can’t touch the things,” says Michael Cohn, the museum’s senior instructor of anthropology, “It might as well be a movie or TV show.” Maybe, as we all strive to enlarge the range of our impressions, our motto should be: Do touch!