Photo by Robert Sorin/Unsplash
In an increasingly visual society, it’s critical to explore the world using our sense of touch.
If eyes are the windows to the soul, is touch a tether to our memories?
I’ve always been a kinesthetic learner—I absorb information best if I can engage with new material, or a new place, in a hands-on way, rather than reading or hearing about it. For example, when learning to row recently, I had taken in maybe half of the information my instructor had shared in the classroom before we hit the water. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in the shell, bobbing about in the San Francisco Bay, that I felt genuine comprehension hit.
It was with fascination that, while digging for information about the link between touch and memory, I read about a 2019 study demonstrating that, according to Scientific American, “the sense of touch generates memories that are far more complex and long-lasting than previously thought.”
There’s been significant research focused on vision or on our sense of smell. Our bodies, too, are powerful tools, forging links between tactile experiences and memory. The skin covering your body (the largest organ, as any trivia buff will note) contains an extensive network of nerve endings and touch receptors, more than 3 million, that allow you to feel the pain of touching a hot stove, the pleasure of a backrub, and much more. That information is then “automatically and effortlessly” stored in our brain, said Dr. Fabian Hutmacher, one of the study’s researchers and a psychologist at the University of Würzburg. (Plus, the more the sensory experience matters to you, the more vividly you’ll be able to recall it, which is why so many people can recall their first kiss with absolute clarity.)
Dr. Hutmacher says this gives touch a unique advantage. “Touch allows us to immediately grasp certain material properties of the objects that we are touching, such as weight, texture, temperature, and hardness,” he told me by email. “These properties are only indirectly accessible to the other senses, if at all.”
Hands, and our fingertips in particular, are especially useful. Your fingerprints aren’t just something with which to unlock your iPhone—those peaks and valleys at the end of each finger help us maintain grip on an object but also trigger vibrations that are then picked up by nerves,
For example, years ago, I interviewed Seattle’s “Barefoot Ted,” who pioneered the shoe-free running style. He invited me to touch his feet, which I did because why not? I’ll never forget the smell of the cool, damp air and the green of the grass around us as I touched his extraordinary feet, which were surprisingly soft and free of calluses.
It made me wonder how travel played into that sense memory and how someone who studies touch—such as Dr. Hutmacher—or someone who works with their hands, such as a sculptor, “sees” the world.
According to the South African ceramics artist Andile Dyalvane, he has been a tactile person since he was a child. “As far as I can remember, [I was] touching the earth,” he shared. Dyalvane made clay oxen and tilled the soil with his grandfather as a boy growing up in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape. He loved to tinker, fixing things around the family’s homestead and “investigating my mother’s religiously preserved bone china sets.”
Now Dyalvane works primarily with clay, drawing in part on the landscapes of his childhood. His pieces might, say, evoke the Nguni cattle that roam the Cape. Throughout his life, touch has remained his “love language . . . my connector,” he said. “Hugs and feeling deeply connected through tactile experiences ground me.” When he travels, he continues to connect through tactile experiences: sourcing clay (known as “winning” clay) with new friends, touching and gathering stones (“the feeling of the stones makes me feel connected to the smell, energy, and spirit of that land, even if I left it,” he says), and even collecting tattoos.
This makes sense, Dr. Hutmacher noted. “The special thing about touch is that it is an intimate sense,” he wrote. In order to touch something, of course, it needs to be quite close. “That sounds trivial, but it is not. Touching something always implies having a direct connection to the object (or the person) that you are touching.”
It’s especially critical to acknowledge the importance of touch, given our intensely visual society. “We tend to direct relatively little attention to our nonvisual senses,” Dr. Hutmacher wrote. Modern travelers are accustomed to sharing pictures of their food or the beach they visited. “If you travel to a new place, there is more to this new place than ‘meets the eye.’” To get the most out of our travels, we should pay more attention to our nonvisual senses—and “the sense of touch in particular.”
Go ahead and embrace your inner toddler!
You don’t necessarily need to roam the world barefoot, but some researchers believe that shoes dull our experience of the world. So go ahead and stroll the beach barefoot, or take off your shoes in a park and feel the grass between your toes. (By the way, some think walking barefoot—or “grounding”—is a possible cure for jet lag.)
OK, maybe not while you’re in a museum. Far from scary museum guards, embrace your inner toddler and touch everything: the rough wall of a building, the soft petals of a flower, the cool water of a fountain. As Dr. Hutmacher noted, the sense of touch is one of the most intimate: To more fully engage with it, you need to move close to the object of your inspection.
While “you do not have to direct attention to your sense of touch in order to store haptic memories,” wrote Dr. Hutmacher, there is some evidence that suggests that there’s a strong connection between touch and sight. So go ahead and allow your eyes to linger on that wall or that flower.
Despite his work on the study, Dr. Hutmacher doesn’t prize touch over the other senses. “What I like to do, when I am in a new place, is take the time to explicitly check what I perceive with my different senses from time to time,” he wrote. “What do I see right now? What kind of sounds and noises am I able to identify? Which sensations do I feel on my skin? Can I smell something interesting?”
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