In How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch (Columbia Univ., Feb.), journalist Subramanian puts a spotlight on a sense “far more complicated than it might seem.”
The research for this book led you to a lot of new experiences. Which was the most impactful?
Massage therapy was by far. When I started out writing this book, I was fairly touch averse. While I did hug friends and shake hands with strangers, it was mostly out of politeness. I’d just as soon not. As I spent more time with my touchy-feely classmates, I started to open up. I didn’t do a complete 180, but I do now feel comfortable enough with my own desire for affectionate touch that I’m able to be present for that same need in others.
Which historical period’s perspective on touch surprised you most?
The Middle Ages were much more tactile than what we’re currently used to. Imagine spending your day exposed to the elements while working, often in scratchy clothes, and then coming home to your hearth, surrounding by family. Home was literally a place of warmth. Touch was far more important to maintaining a sense of community than it is now. Fathers bonded with sons over wrestling matches. Binding agreements were made through a handshake. It’s interesting to think about what it would feel like to live in a time when people were as fluent with their body language as we are with our words today.
Why include both your personal experiences and other peoples’ stories and research?
Many authors of science books I enjoy, such as Mary Roach, James Nestor, David K. Randall, and Katherine Harmon Courage, take this same approach. I think it was necessary for this book because, while the science is interesting, it needed something else to propel the reader forward. The personal experiences—both mine and other people’s—were how I created a narrative structure. I tried to curate the most interesting stories on touch that I could find.
What makes this book important right now?
When I started, I was focused on how visual our lives are becoming. We’re surrounded by screens, we’re often interacting with each other’s avatars instead of in person, and much of our work doesn’t require touching much more than a keyboard. My main argument was that we lose something important about ourselves when we don’t use touch and that there are ways we can bring that aspect of our lives back. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, that message about an overemphasis on vision is even more extreme. However, it’s much harder to imagine what getting back in touch will mean.