The mother of all senses

Essay

A mother’s tender hug, the brush of a wool dress on your naked skin, or your lips meeting a cup of hot chocolate – every day the world touches us in many different ways.

The mother’s body

The moment we are born we cry out, helpless and unable to understand our new environment. We are like travellers who have just landed in a new territory with a crumpled map, only to realise that we cannot decipher all that it says. And then our naked skin, still wet from amniotic fluids, lands on our mother’s body. Our brain creates millions of new neural connections, and suddenly we feel safe.

It is a scientific fact that this first experience of touch shapes a baby’s brain, scaffolding for life. Their growth, immunity and cognitive abilities depend on it as much as they depend on food. No wonder that in his landmark book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (1817) Ashley Montagu called touch ‘the mother of all senses’.

Practising skinship

It is through the comfort of touch that babies feel safe enough to embark on the journey of life’s discovery. Yet, it is puzzling how the hierarchy of senses is not universal across all cultures. For example, the Japanese culture puts an immense value on primal touch within the family realm. The Japanese believe in ‘sukinshippu’. It is a word coined from from two English words: ‘skin‘ and ‘–ship’ (as in “friendship” or “kinship”). In its widest context, it describes intimacy through touch, experienced in various ways: breastfeeding, co-sleeping and co-bathing rituals.

Interestingly, mothers (and sometimes fathers) practise this bodily closeness with their kids only during the first couple of years of parenthood. After the child turns five or six, touch becomes less visible. By then the perceived state of connectedness and mutual understanding is already so strong that it no longer requires physical or visible forms of touching.

In Japan people may seem shy or distant. But as anthropologist Diana Adis Tahhan writes in her book The Japanese Family: Touch, Intimacy and Feeling, it is because they prefer the subtle forms of communication: ‘ishin denshin’, or unspoken heart to heart connection. Touch is reserved for private, not for public display of affection or day-to-day interactions with strangers or even acquaintances. Understanding this, the ostensibly sterile world of Japanese urban relationships – in shops, parks or offices – seem much more comprehensible.

The cultural filter

Everyone senses the world in their own way, but it is our culture that teaches us how to understand it. The kiss – an acceptable hello for some – is not considered the same the world over.  

According to a 2017 study by the Department of Experimental Psychology of University of Oxford, touch defines our personal boundaries. These in turn vary significantly according to nationalities. While the British prefer to converse with a metre between them and a stranger, Argentinians are happy with 76cm, and will stand as close as 40 cm to close friends. Apparently, we can explain these differences by a ‘heat’ axis – different temperatures influence perceptions of personal space. People living in warmer countries (South America, Middle East and South Europe) tend to have more physical interaction with each other than people living in colder climates. Asia, Northern Europe and North America are non-contact cultures, where people prefer to keep their distance.

You should never randomly hug a Brit, the study’s authors concluded (somewhat) jokingly. And suddenly I remembered how in 2009 an innocent hug made global headlines when America’s then first lady, Michelle Obama, broke royal protocol during a visit to Britain by hugging the Queen.

If we dare to think about our world less as a real and tangible space, but as more of a mental construction, filtered not through our physical senses, but through familiar language and customs, all these differences start to make sense. Just as in the old saying: ‘seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth’.

WORDS: Alex Reszelska

Published originally in the international fashion magazine Renaissance, digital issue SENSES, May 2019.