Publisbed 1990 by International Univ. Press, Inc., Connecticut
(Clinical Infant Reports N° 3)

Touch: The Foundation of Experience

Reviewed by Anton FÜRLINGER,
Isbarygasse 13, Vienna, A-1140 Austria, Europe

No question the visual sense is dominating our experience in everyday life.

No doubt most of the (laureated) neuroscientists have worked their way through the visual pathways.

Maybe we need "a critique of pure vision" (CHURCHLAND et al 1994) to take intermodality more serious and behaviour as sensory and motor

In the best visible, accessible and largest of all organs of the vertebrate, the skin, the first modality to emerge in ontogeny is touch. (Together with the second, the vestibular senses this may suggest a relational origin of the nervous system: the one sense will detect the direction towards the earth's "body", the other all bodies approaching the skin beyond zero distance ).

Now this monograph, it succeeds in integrating work from neuroanatomical, comparative biological, sensory-motor, learning and developmental viewpoints. It covers the entire life span with emphasis on preterm infant care and on therapeutic applications in general.

Now the chapters in some more detail. MERZENICH's famous experiments on plasticity of somatosensory cortex show that experience not only lays the foundation of cortical maps, (why not already in utero, there is a lot of undisturbed selfencounter there) but can alter them accordingly throughout life.

DIAMOND and GREENOUGH also deal with somatosensory development. In rats reared in enriched conditions (made complex in the social or environmental domain) gross enlargement of brain tissue and larger neuronal dendritic fields were found.

SUOMI presents an evaluation of short-term social separation experiments with young Rhesus monkeys. Even brief separations can entail systematic problems in social development, thus adding evidence to HARLOW's doctrine on the tactual "nature of love".

LEVINE & STANTON corroborate this by arguing that contact between mother and infant, in their case squirrel monkeys and rats, might be a crucial mechanism to modulate level of arousal in both infants and mothers.

REITE, with his data collected by an implantable biotelemetry device, examines the physiological correlates of agitation or depression seen in young pig-tail monkeys after maternal separation. Touch seems to have regulating or signalling influences on physiology, can promote attachment and health. "If we can understand the biology, then the psychology will make more sense." He is right!

Taken together, the above chapters attribute the tactual mode the role of an early integrator for the other senses (but it is not "used against" the visual hegemony...)

Then a wealth of information about work in intensive care nurseries together with evaluations and discussions is presented (GORSKI, RAUSCH, KORNER).The sensory ecology of a fetus and the design of an environment permitting diagnostic and therapeutic activities are not easy to reconcile. Rocking, striking and water beds for the preterm infant are only starting points as long as we do not know the rhythms a fetus can or must track to mature is nervous system (fetuses of comatose mothers are not rocked...)

After SATZ ("A developmental study of finger localization and reading achievement") GOTTFRIED reviews the role of touch in early development. At one hundred days, the embryo is sensitive to touch all over the body "except for the top and back of the head, which remain insensitive until birth". According to him (too) there is still "a paucity of data on the amount and nature of tactile contact of premature infants in special care units".

"Therapeutic touch" is introduced by MEEHAN, specified for midwifery by WOLFSON and critically appraised by SMITH. For me as a physician reports that touch can change blood composition even without direct contact is hard to believe.

On the other hand, isn't every (pro )therapeutic interaction characterized by extra-ordinarity in ethological, natural terms much as art is characterized by "making things special" (see DISSAYANAKE 1992)?

Let us try to model a "healing situation", the atmosphere of which evokes an "aura curae" for the patient. LA.NGER (1987) used the term to broaden the context of placebo effects:
Imagine, first, a visibly ill one realizing another (often unfamiliar) individual approaching him beyond the distance a curious mammal would keep towards a deviant (manifestly sick) congener.

Then, intentional "manipulations" are administered without clear signals for ordinary motives like chance, (kin) familiarity, threat or sexuality.

Third, the addressees's body cannot react in a contingent way but might react in some unspecific way.

In the last chapter, on life spectrum, WEISS opens to show how meaning is created in cognitive maps and that learning through tactile stimulation is a necessary precondition for learning via other modalities, nicely paraphrasing the title of the volume. She then examines the effect of parental touch and arrives at unexpected sex differences.

In her "language of touch" MAIN demonstrates that parental aversion to infant initiated contact is transmitted across generations.

MC ANARNEY rightly points to the importance and risks of tenderness in adolescent interactions: "Since women are usually held or cuddled before or after coitus, they can use sex as a means to get this type of body contact" (for a more elaborate handling of the tender quality of touch see KOORTMULDER 1994)

There is also a philosophical chapter about history of concepts and energy field hypotheses and there are, scattered between the chapters, segments of lively discussions (a pity some crucial questions are posed but not answered -or not printed)

The book can be strongly recommended for graduate students in behavioural biology, (behavioural) physiology and developmental biology.

CHURCHLAND P., RAMACHANDRAN V., SEJNOWSKI T., 1994: A Critique of Pure Vision. In: KOCH C. DAVIS J. (eds.1994: Large Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain MIT Press Cambridge, Mass.
DISSANAYAKE E., 1992: Homo aestheticus: where art comes from and why. The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan, Inc. New York
KOORTMULDER K., 1994: "Tederheid" in zoological perspective Sociology and Human Affairs. Vol 59, 21-33
LANGER G., 1987: Placebo: Beyond Pretence and Nuisance Variable, Arguments in Favour of Upgrading an Eminent Protherapeutic Concept ("Aura Curae") Suppl.175, Wien. Klin. Wochenschr. Vol. 99,
Heft 20, 1-20 (in German)

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