What is our most important sense? When I’ve asked this question of others, I’ve often got the answer: “well, I wouldn’t want to lose my sense of sight”. And I agree. I wouldn’t want to lose my sense of sight either. However, just because it’s our preferred sense, doesn’t necessarily mean it is our most important one. I put it to you that touch is actually our most important sense.
Culturally and socially, touch plays a pivotal role in our lives. Our language is littered with words and phrases rooted in the definitions of touch: we say people have hurt our feelings or touched our hearts; we have business and social contacts; we touch wood to avoid fate; we stay in touch, touch base and lose touch; we have palpitations; describe people as being prickly or cuddly, cold or warm. Have we subconsciously developed a lexicon around the thing that’s most important to us?
Touch is considered by psychologists today, as well as Aristotle over 2000 years ago, as our most elementary sense; the sense from which all others have evolved. All animals possess the sense of touch, but may lack at least one of the others. Deaf people can hear the beat of the music and rumble of traffic through vibrations; blind people can read using Braille. Studies have shown that embryos develop a sense of touch from as early as eight weeks of development. Of all the senses to be born without, to be born without the sense of touch is the rarest of them all. And we know that embracing and mothering babies decreases infant mortality.
Just as significantly, touch also facilitates trust and social bonding. When upset or stressed, being touched releases a number of hormones that ease our anxiety and lower our heart rate. One of these hormones – oxytocin – is released by mothers during breast feeding, and by both sexes during sex. And that’s important. Actually, to put it bluntly: without a sense of touch, we simply couldn’t reproduce.
So oxytocin, whether produced by sex, breastfeeding or social interaction, helps the people involved to bond. It has also been scientifically shown to increase trust between strangers. And trust is needed for healthy, productive societies. The most productive economies are those with high levels of trust and trustworthiness. Touch begets trust.
And, when you think about it, touch is our greatest expression of love. From the moment we are first held in our mother’s arms, to those final minutes holding a loved one’s hand as life passes from their lips to another world. When no words will do, touch is there to ease the suffering.
At arrival halls and departure halls in airports around the world, how many embraces, how many kisses? On the streets: how many couples holding hands? In war zones, how many distraught mothers clinging to the broken bodies of dead children?
Touch gives us spirit. It gives us soul, empathy, trust. It helps the blind to see and the deaf to hear. We can talk to our loved ones on the phone, read a text message, send an email, but that’s no substitute for having them right here beside us, to have and to hold. More than any other sense, touch helps us to survive.
Touch is our most important sense.