cover image How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch

How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch

Sushma Subramanian. Columbia Univ, $30 (264p) ISBN 978-0-231-19932-2

“Ever since Plato, touch has been an unappreciated sense,” writes journalist Subramanian in this accessible debut. The author’s central concern is to find what would happen if society was as aware of touch—“our lowest sense” according to Plato—as it is of vision, which she argues the West favors for its Enlightenment association with knowledge. She begins with an anecdote: one day, struggling with a wobbly desk, she wonders what constitutes touch, concluding “it was unsettling to realize how little I knew about” that sense. This sets Subramanian on an international quest in which she meets Englishman Ian Waterman, one of 10 known people to have a condition that impairs his ability to feel sensations on his skin; interviews professional cuddlers about touch-starvation; tests a sensory deprivation bath; and attends a haptics conference of touch-illusions. She writes of such innovators as Diane Gromala, a visual artist and professor who uses virtual reality to treat chronic pain, and Ingo Koehler, leader of the haptics group at Volkswagen. At the heart is the author’s own curiosity as she moves from being once “touch averse” to someone “electrified” by massage school. Subramanian is a thoughtful guide on this exploration that delivers an eye-opening mix of self-discovery and scientific investigation. (Feb.)