Bring Up Touch—How do we perceive tactile stimuli

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From all senses that we develop, touch is the first one to form. During pregnancy, fetuses will begin developing feelings of sensations on their faces at week 8. Yet, the nose and the lips will be responsible for processing nearly all sensations. A month later, feelings on the palms and soles will develop, and if we wait for an additional five weeks (week 17), the abdomen will start sensing too. Interestingly, our brain will devote a majority of its attention to those parts especially. It is relatively easy to test this. Try prodding someone else’s back, with their consent, and ask them to evaluate how far two prods are from each other. Then do the same again, but this time over their palm. Were the results similar? Hopefully, the palms results should be unquestionably more accurate than the back results. This effect is possible through the bulkier number of neuronal endings found on the skin of our palms compared to those on our back.

Speaking of neuronal endings, we cannot avoid talking about the many specialized sensory neurons that form the somatosensory neural pathways, which get completed by the middle of the third trimester. From this point on, the baby will feel a more integral range of feelings. Each specialized sensory neuron has, on its endings, receptors that are enabling the perception of different sensations. Mechanoreceptors will provide detection for pressure, light touch, tearing or vibration. Thermoreceptors are sensitive to temperature changes. Chemoreceptors will detect chemical changes, and nociceptors are responsible for transmitting pain signals. It is intriguing to note that pain is the last sensation to develop and appear through the formation of totally different pathways (read https://bringupscience.com/2021/01/23/bring-up-pain-2/ for more). In sum, all specific tactile inputs have distinct neurons responsible for their detections. This statement also applies to touch in social interactions. As opposed to ordinary touch, the tap that we receive on the back of our shoulder, as praise, elicits an emotional response. This particular tactile sensation makes up what we now describe as social or emotional touch. It recruits a different somatosensory system than the one involved in conventional touch.

A piece of evidence supporting the idea that social touch involves the activation of different pathways comes from studying people affected by primary sensory neuropathy. Individuals affected by this disorder are known to display touch blindness, i.e. they cannot feel any tactile input coming from neither their hands nor their bodies. They are even incapable of reading braille, where each letter corresponds to a dot pattern, and all dots are embossed. This adaptation, commonly, grants people who cannot read solely based on their sight the ability to read through touch. Thus as already mentioned, individuals affected by this neuropathy cannot read, nor can they feel the object coming in contact with their skin. However, they strangely can feel a touch from another person and attribute it an emotional value. They, indeed, can feel the gentle touch of someone stroking their arm and communicate that the touch felt pleasant. However, this theory is currently based on anecdotal evidence only, and thus we shouldn’t jump to any conclusion just yet.

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Even if social touch turns out to have no different pathways than conventional touch, it would be reasonable to keep in mind the importance of its impact anyway. Indeed, some orphan children, who grew up in an orphanage, received so little social-emotional interaction that it hampered their growth dramatically and, in some instances, even led to death. I should disclose that customarily the orphanage staff was conveying proper treatments with absolutely no intention of neglect. Unfortunately, they were often too few and could honestly not care for more than the children’s most basic needs. Those needs were thought, at that moment, to be strictly drinking, feeding, sleeping and occasional physical activity. As long as these aspects were all taken care of, they genuinely believe that they tended well. Only now we know that social touch is amongst those basic needs. The lack of it will downright kill a kid. Current studies have demonstrated that social touch enables growth hormone release and will stimulate the immune system. Researchers have found similar findings to support the reciprocal, i.e. that a lack of social touch hinders growth hormone release and cripples the immune system. Moreover, children who were unfortunate enough to have been placed in such an institution were found at an elevated risk to develop behavioural, social and psychological problems.

Additionally, social touch occupies such a meaningful place in our life that, as a result, we may mistakenly associate general tactile inputs to our impression of a person. To illustrate this idea, let us consider this well-known experiment conducted by social psychologists. The psychologist asked the volunteers to describe their first impressions of a stranger. Every subject of the study had the same task, to relay their general impression. The only difference between all the volunteers was the drink they were holding while meeting this other person: Half held a cold drink and the rest a hot drink. We would all think that the beverages they were holding should have no impact on their impression of another individual, but that is not what happened. Curiously, people holding the hot drinks described their new acquaintance as “warmer”; the inverse was also true for the cold drink volunteers. Another experiment tried a different approach through evaluation of the same resume but on two differently weighed clipboards. It seemed that the resume attached to the heavier clipboard made the candidate seem more serious and competent than the individual whose resume was attached to the lighter clipboard.

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Despite social touch playing an integral role in our life, it is not the only factor that can interfere with our touch perception. Emotions play a considerable role in how we interpret touch or pain. The feeling we bear in a particular moment (good/bad mood, relaxed/scared, rested/tired, etc.) may considerably impact how we will perceive that tap on our back. The same tap may feel like an assault or an encouragement, depending on your emotion at the time. If you hate the person, you might think of that tap as an assault, but if that person is a friend, then you could have perceived it as an encouragement. Additionally, when we feel happy, pain does not seem as terrible as when we are sad or depressed. We can only say that touch and emotions are in a very intricate relationship, indeed.

Now, I cannot write about touch without talking about tickles. I honestly find them somewhat intriguing since no one has yet to come with an irrefutable explanation as to why we feel them. There are many theories, however. My favourite one introduces tickles as an evolutionary mechanism that leads to more capable offspring. Tickles are, in the simplest terms, the results of neuronal overexcitation. We, as adults, can feel tickles in only our most sensitive areas, but as a kid, that surface can be as great as the entire space occupied by your skin. Sadly, our sensitivity, as we are ageing, seems to decline progressively. The duality of tickles (being felt as both unpleasant and pleasant) supposedly serves as both an incentive to protect the sensitive areas and encourage wrestling and fighting. Those two consequences force offspring to prepare and practise both their offensive and defensive strategies to better cope with inevitable future threats. It seems such a no-brainer that the more you practise, the better you become, and this is why I genuinely value this idea.

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Bring Up Biophilia—What makes us particularly attracted to nature

No one can dismiss the amazing feeling we get after spending some time in nature. We instantly feel relaxed and reinvigorated. Some might attribute this effect to time spent far away from work, and even though they could be correct, it is not the whole picture. Biophilia is a relatively new concept that brought the…

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Bring Up State of Panic – What makes us completely lose it

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Waking up in March 2020, while the whole COVID-19 pandemic was unravelling, was no cup of tea. I was foolishly thinking at first that this pandemic wouldn’t change much in our daily lives. After a couple months, I got hit really hard by the observation that things couldn’t be further from the normal we used to know. I was forced to realize that this situation would remain so for a very long time. Given that I had to plan my wedding for summer 2021 and manage a website by myself which got launched no earlier than January 2020, I found this situation considerably troublesome. I won’t hide that this ordeal was a huge anxiety trigger for me. My biggest concern was especially the difficulty getting food. Before the pandemic started, I usually proceeded to order my groceries online, but now it was simply impossible to find an available delivery slot. My fiancée and I came to realize that we had no other choice than to walk down to the grocery store ourselves. 

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Yet our troubles were still far from over. Before we could even see the entrance of the grocery store, we were forced to notice the interminable lineup. I’ve heard that Montréal got hit pretty hard on that front compared to other regions in Quebec, and from what I experienced, I couldn’t agree more. The lineups were often so long that it would typically take us, my fiancé and I, well over an hour to simply get into the store. At the entrance, we were informed that only one of us could enter. So naturally I went in. I only started picking up the grocery to discover suddenly that most essentials were out of stock. Think about flour, sugar, eggs, canned foods, toilet papers and more. This was all so far out of my already established habits that it was sufficient enough to trigger an unbearable anxiety episode. It got so bad, at one point, that I had totally given up on even contemplating being productive. Watching Rom-Coms was my main distraction and was definitely what kept me going day after day. Months into the pandemic, with the help of my already busy fiancé, I decided to kick myself in the rear and do something about it.

The change of mindset was accompanied by summer and its relaxed restrictions. The possibility to see friends and family was more than welcome. Altogether, it was sufficient to have me overcome the anxiety which made me go through somewhat resembling more of a normal life. With perspective, I can say that my anxiety had manifested itself through avoidance and immobility, often referred as Freeze when we talk about this topic. There are, nonetheless, other possible reactions when faced with this same situation. The reactions can be so different that if we compare two of them, they may look completely contradictory. For example, some may become slobs, not doing much really, and some might develop a full-blown panic, hoarding everything on their paths. From a narrow point of view, we may interpret the latter reaction as selfish; however selfishness is not the driver behind this behaviour, fear is.

I feel confident enough to state that most of us have never experienced anything similar to this before. The closest thing that we may have experienced are natural disasters, accidents and attacks. All of those are very localized and in all of those situations we might expect help from outsiders. In the case of this pandemic, everyone was affected. We could only seek help from within us. A lot of people were quick to jump to the most horrific conclusion. Without toilet paper, what would we do? People got so afraid of missing essentials that they hoarded as much as was possible creating a massive shortage in grocery. This was perceived to be enough to validate their actions when in fact it was just the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, this shortage may have been avoided if people kept their buying habits unchanged and not going full rampage mode on the grocery aisles. 

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When we learn to understand the elements that contribute to the development of anxiety, we are in a better standing to act in a more moderate way. A way that doesn’t give in to a state of panic, or even fear for that matter. Truly enough, years ago, I thought that anxiety merely originated from being overwhelmed for a very long time. It was only from one of my university courses that I discovered that anxiety was truly more complex than this. I found out that much like pain, anxiety is an adaptive response that is meant to protect us. It was so finely tuned to detect potential threat, that even now in the absence of significant threat to our life, it still fires up. After much research on the topic, experts came to determine very specific factors that can trigger anxiety, which they summed to the term “NUTS”. NUTS is an acronym for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to ego and finally Sense of control. Typically, the more of these elements are present in a situation, the more anxiogenic (causing anxiety) this situation is said to be.

Let’s use this current pandemic as an example to illustrate these elements. The novelty aspect speaks for itself. We have never encountered anything even slightly similar in our life. The pandemic was the result of an exposure to a new strain of coronaviruses (Sars-Cov-2) that, even though was not very deadly, was efficiently spreading. When we came across this virus last spring, we knew barely anything about it. This brings me to the second aspect, unpredictability. We certainly didn’t know what the proper protocol was to apply when dealing with this, nor did we know how long this pandemic would last. We clearly didn’t know if we were in contact with it or not, viruses are invisible to eye scrutiny and this particular virus could even be spread by asymptomatic people. Also unknown was what our immune reaction would be if or when we came in contact with it. This last unpredictability was also appealing to the third aspect of anxiety, threat to ego (self). At last we have the sense of control aspect of anxiety which in this case is not very impressive. The only real control we have over the situation is our reaction, which we don’t have much control over to begin with.

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With all that said, it’s not surprising that the anxiety triggered may have been intense for many of us. Sometime so intense that it would have translated into fear in some and panic in others. Panic is often accompanied with emotionally compromised decisions that are taken in the spur of the moment and wouldn’t be repeated in normal circumstances. This brings me back to the toilet paper hoarding problem I’ve mentioned earlier. This behaviour is not very popular in our everyday life, but in times of panic, it is widely common. People momentarily stop thinking about the wellbeing of others and primarily think about theirs. Considering that when anxious people are easy to jump to the worst-case possible scenario, rumours about possible toilet paper shortage is enough to instigate fear in people’s mind and react accordingly. Hoarding also proves to be a way for people to gain a sense of control over the situation.

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In a couple of months, we will be marking our first year into this pandemic. Things have now begun to feel like a new reality. We still would prefer our life to go back to normal, but this new everyday existence has now become more bearable. Without the common state of panic that many experienced early on, people have currently resumed to think about the wellbeing of others. We can again observe acts of generosity and compassion to others. We have come a long way and, as long as we remember to look for the components of anxiety, we can learn to better cope with what life decides to throw at us. 

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To help you respond better when anxiety starts to hit, you need to wonder about NUTS and ask yourself how you can decrease novelty (e.g. Reading, be careful not to become obsessed, which you exacerbate anxiety), diminish unpredictability (e.g. plans for as many scenarios as you may be able to come up with), lessen the possible threat to ego (e.g. set measure to protect yourself, for COVID-19 pandemic, it could be distancing, wearing protective equipment or even staying home) and finally increasing control (e.g. learn ways to control what you can, could be trying to moderate emotion, maintaining relationship, fixing a work schedule, etc.).

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.