Touch: Uncovering the Self

by Erin Ferguson, MA GCFP

I just read an article in The New Yorker about touch: Feel Me: What the new science of touch says about ourselves. It reports that much of our behavior is linked to our intense sensitivity to pressure. We know how to respond to the world by how it feels. Researchers have found a sinusoidal wave that communicates touch to the brain. It modulates at one hertz, and fits within the rhythm and change of a heartbeat. This means that prosthetic hands can now be hooked up to sensors that send distinct information to the brain.

I found all this very interesting, given that my profession is based on sensory feedback, either on a table or in a group lesson or audio recording. I once had an older, well-built man come in to see me who lay down on the table and just started crying. He'd had a number of medical procedures and been poked and prodded and generally harassed. He told me that he had never been touched with kindness. The relief he felt at feeling safe was immense.

Of course, most medical procedures are unpleasant and the opposite of soothing. I have another client who is undergoing prolotherapy injections that cause immense pain and leave this person's nervous system on red alert for days. One client underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer and had to hold her arms overhead for the duration of the sessions. This is not a comfortable position for many people, so we looked at how her ribs and spine could soften in new ways so she could accommodate the sessions with more comfort. Another client was undergoing dental surgery so we explored ways her jaw and neck could move with more ease to avoid the ache and tension of the awkward position.

Sometimes the stress of going through invasive, uncomfortable medical procedures can layer more health issues on top of the original one. Trauma, bracing, digestive problems, fear, PTSD, chronic fatigue, muscle tension, insomnia, and more can ensue.

The author of the article on touch writes, "Our bodies are membranes in the world, with sensation and meaning passing seamlessly through them. Our experience of our bodies, the things they feel, the moves they make, and the textures and the people they touch, is the primary experience of our minds."

For many people, a safe, non-sexual, gentle touch is almost unknown. In the Feldenkrais Method we spend years--through touch, language, and presence--learning to honor the natural state of the person without asking them to be different, without requiring or demanding anything of them. This in itself if profound and amazing. It's unusual to feel sensory feedback without social or medical implications. Most of us think we have to be a certain way. What about your natural self? Who is your natural self? I think that's part of what my client experienced that brought the tears.

It's a gift to honor your own sensory feedback and become aware of your own comfort without going into the deep denial we use to get through stuff. It's a way let go of anxiety and to be oneself on some deeper level. I think that's why Feldenkrais affected me so strongly as I went through the years of retraining my nervous system: it was like feeling a person I didn't know I could be because it took me out of the necessity of responding with all my habits.

"The foundation of all human relationships is touch," says Dacher Keltner, a professor of the science of emotions at Berkeley and the consultant for the movie, Inside Out. He discovered that professional basketball teams whose players touched each other a lot did better than players who didn't. "Touch lowers stress, builds morale, and produces triumphs--a chest bump instructs us in cooperation, a half-hug in compassion."

The article goes on to quote the philosopher Alva Noë, "The brain is just simply a part of our bodies." I think there's more to recognize and honor here than we realize. To feel safe, we need undemanding touch; to feel kindness, we need gentle touch; to feel loved, we need affectionate touch. As I have seen over and over, the medical world does not provide this calming, easing, generous, spacious human event. But we can provide it to each other.