Great Ideas: Only Connect

“As a pediatric intern,” says medical doctor and holistic health pioneer Rachel Naomi Remen, “I was a secret baby kisser. This was so flagrantly ‘unprofessional’ I was careful not to be discovered. Late at night under the guise of checking a surgical dressing or an I.V. I would make solo rounds on the ward and kiss the children good night. If there was a favorite toy or blanket, I would be sure it was close and if someone were crying I would even sing a little. I never mentioned this dimension of my health care to anyone. I felt the other residents, mostly men, might think less of me for it.

One evening as I was talking to a patient’s father in the corridor, I glanced over his shoulder and saw Stan, my chief resident, bend over the crib of a little girl with leukemia and kiss her on the forehead. In that moment, I realized that others too might be struggling to extend themselves beyond an accepted professionalism to express a natural caring. Perhaps there was a way to talk about these things, even to support one another.

One night when we were waiting to be called to the operating room for a C-Section, I told Stan what I had seen and that it had meant something important to me. Although we were alone in the doctor’s lounge, Stan denied the whole thing. We dropped the subject in embarrassment. For the rest of the year we worked together, thirty-six hours on call and twelve hours off. We became trusted colleagues, good friends and even occasional drinking buddies, but we never mentioned the incident again.

Stan’s integrity was almost legendary. He would never have fudged a piece of lab data or said he had read an article when he hadn’t. But he would have had to step past our entire professional image and training to admit his heartfelt reaction to that little girl. It was impossible then. It is barely possible now. Expressing caring directly rather than through a willingness to work a thirty-six hour day or spend long evenings keeping up with the medical literature and the newest treatments transgresses a strong professional code. It was just not professional behavior. I stopped kissing the babies then. It did not seem worth the risk.

In some ways, a medical training is like a disease. It would be years before I would fully recover from mine.”

That’s the story from Rachel Naomi Remen, and it’s heartbreaking. The complete opposite of happy. Healers, wanting to obey a natural impulse to extend a caring touch, blocked by an ideology of professionalism. Don’t kiss the babies. Don’t sing to them. It’s shameful. Unmentionable. Against code.

Meanwhile the children in hospital wards are touch deprived. The lonely and crying, uncomforted. Babies needing kisses, unkissed.

As for the healers themselves—the doctors and nurses and other medical personnel, women and men—touch deprived as well. Hugs not given are hugs not received. Human beings denying their physical and spiritual wholeness in, as Rachel Naomi Remen says, “the mistaken belief that this would enable them to be of greatest service to others.”

Today we are going to take a look at the struggle in medical science to recognize and affirm the role of physical touch in human wellness. Through this, we will be reminded of the larger struggle we all share, in one way or another. Touch deprivation is a reality in American culture as a whole. It’s just not babies needing to be touched in caring ways, or the sick. It’s not just doctors and nurses needing to extend it. It’s all of us, needing connection, needing to receive it, needing to give it, with genuine happiness at stake.

Perhaps one of the most suggestive evidences of the basic human need for affectionate touch comes from the work of psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1960s and 1970s. Fellow psychologist Robert Hatfield describes it as follows: “Harry Harlow’s studies involved taking newborn monkeys from their mothers and raising them in isolation. The young monkeys were deprived of maternal and social touch…. In every other way the monkeys were very well cared for. They were well fed, their cages kept clean, and their medical needs attended to. They were “merely” isolated from any physical contact with their mother or other monkeys. Even physical contact with the researchers was severely limited. [Now, in one classic study, which has come to be known as his “wire mother” study,] Harlow placed the touch deprived monkeys in a large cage that contained two crude dummy monkeys constructed of wood and chicken-wire. One dummy was bare wire with a full baby bottle attached. The monkeys had been regularly nursed from similar bottles. The other dummy was the same as the first except that it contained no bottle and the chicken wire was wrapped with terry cloth. Placed in this strange environment, the anxious young monkey very quickly attached itself to the cloth wrapped dummy and continued to cling to it as the hours passed by. The infant monkey could easily see the familiar baby bottle no more than a few feet away on the other dummy. Many hours passed. Although growing increasingly distraught and hungry, the infants in these studies would not release their hold on the soft cloth of the food-less dummy. It was soon apparent that the young monkeys would likely dehydrate and starve before abandoning the terry cloth surrogate mother.” That’s what Harry Harlow discovered, and from this he concluded that, in infant and young monkeys at least—in all human beings, by implication—there appears to be a hunger more powerful than the craving for food: a craving for skin contact with something that feels comfortable and soft, something you can nuzzle and cuddle up to, something to hold and be held by.

It’s hunger for touch—“touch hunger”—and Harlow’s findings helped shift the official scientific paradigm regarding basic human needs. Science’s eyes were just beginning to be opened. But it took a lot to get things to this point. Science’s eyes were firmly shut back in the 1930s, for example, to the work that Dr. Joseph Brennemann was doing in Bellevue Hospital in New York. He saw how the mortality rate of infants under one year of age was way too high. He acknowledged that ensuring sanitary conditions, plenty of food, and careful attention just wasn’t enough. What was missing was loving physical contact. So Dr. Brennemann established the rule that every baby should be picked up, carried around, and hugged and nuzzled and cuddled several times a day. The result? A mortality rate that fell from 35% to less than 10%. He had found a way to heal a disease that had been hounding American hospitals throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, called “marasmus,” which means “wasting away”—infants dying for no apparent reason, dying in the best of hospitals, dying under sanitary conditions, dying with all the food they could ever want. Dr Brennemann had done something of staggering importance, yet it didn’t fit in with the official scientific paradigm of the time. It didn’t translate.

It’s because science in the 1930s was still very much in the grip of a perspective that had no room for something like “touch hunger.” This perspective (called “behaviorism”) said that the best way to understand human beings is to pay attention only to what can be observed by one’s five senses—which means that you ignore wishes, you ignore needs, you ignore feelings. You ignore all that and focus instead on creating environments which condition people to behave in optimal ways. Humans are like all other physical objects, and the art of happiness is reduced to a kind of hypermasculine physics. Thus it was that one of the key figures of the behaviorist movement, John B. Watson, dreamed that one day children would be taken away from the chaotic environments of their parents and raised in carefully regulated baby farms. Until that utopian day came, parents and all others responsible for the care of children needed to follow behaviorist principles. Avoid anything that smacks of unconditional love—don’t hold children or cuddle them or nuzzle them for no reason, because if you do that, you are ruining their training. Affection will make them lazy, spoiled, and weak. It’s unscientific. Stick with the training regimen. Take a hint from the “Dog Whisperer”… Sentimentality is to be avoided at all costs. Maintain a sophisticated aloofness. Keep them at arms length. Feed them by the clock, not on demand. All for their own good.

This was the prevailing paradigm when Dr. Brennemann was working at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and this paradigm was still influential when Rachel Naomi Remen was a pediatric intern, being a secret kisser, wanting to talk about the power of touch with fellow colleagues but facing denial, even by those who were secret kissers themselves. Official scientific paradigms take a long time to fade away. At this point I am reminded of a quote by Max Plank—someone who witnessed the twentieth-century revolution in physics and saw, first hand, how such things happen. The messiness involved. He said, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Perhaps it has been exactly this way where “touch hunger” is concerned. Passionate commitment to particular theories drive scientists to do the work they do, and they are as subject to group dynamics as the rest of us. In science as in religion and other fields of inquiry, facts and evidence only go so far. Sometimes progress takes the turning of many seasons, and new generations are required to get to the tipping point.

Rachel Naomi Remen was and is part of this new generation. So was Harry Harlow with his primate studies. The tipping point is now. Now, scientific studies of touch hunger are on overdrive. Let me share a just a few main findings, and then we’ll turn to the practical question of what to do with all of this in our own lives.

One finding has to do with the long-term effects of touch hunger. What Harry Harlow saw in his isolated and touch-deprived monkeys was truly disturbing. Fellow psychologist Robert Hatfield reports some of the findings: “Harlow’s primates over-reacted to most situations and engaged in a depressive withdrawal to the others. Almost none of their responses to common stimulation and situations were normal. These pathetic touch deprived primates demonstrated a high level of aversion to any form of touch from others. Their usual response to appropriate touch by other monkeys vacillated between fearful and aggressive. They were hyperaggressive and unable to form adequate relations with other monkeys when reintroduced to their group. Highly unusual sexual responses were typical. They were unable to perform sexually and found it exceedingly difficult to locate a receptive partner for their inadequate attempts at quieting their sexual impulses and drives.” Robert Hatfield goes on to summarize the findings by saying, “The review of all touch research to date leads to the inescapable conclusion that Harlow’s primate research has provided us with a highly useful human model of the behavioral impact of touch deprivation.”

Couple this with the particular lack of touch in American society, and the implications are sobering. In one study, American, French and Puerto Rican friends were observed in a coffee shop over the course of an hour to determine how frequently physical contact occurs. American friends tended to touch each other an average of only twice an hour, whereas French friends touched 110 times, and Puerto Rican friends touched 180 times. Add to this the sharp observation of anthropologist Ashley Montague of Americans waiting for a bus: “Americans will space themselves like sparrows on a telephone wire, in contrast to Mediterranean peoples who will push and crowd together.”

One scientist who has put two and two together is neuropsychologist James W. Prescott. Looking in particular at the aggressiveness of Harlow’s touch-deprived monkeys, Prescott hypothesized that cultures which lavish touch on their infants and children should be the least violent societies on earth. Conversely, societies that are most touch-deprived should be the most violent. After analyzing data collected from over 400 world cultures, he discovered that his hypothesis has great predictive value. The evidence supports it. And guess where America comes out? Our country, which has less than five percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of the world’s prison population…. You can fill in that blank yourself.

It’s disturbing.

You know, today is Superbowl Sunday. Some of us could care less, others of us can’t wait. But I’ll tell you, the real “unofficial” national holiday we should be mindful of happened back on January 21. National Hugging Day. Created twenty years ago by an Episcopalian pastor, it’s all about permission to give free expression to our basic human need for warm fuzzies. “We need four hugs a day for survival,” says family therapist Virginia Satir. “We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” National Hugging Day is meant to help us remember this. Bring us back to our senses.

Which takes us to three things I’d like to recommend. Three invitations, as you and I hold our touch hunger with compassion and learn better ways of meeting it.

One is to be on the lookout for lingering behaviorism. The message still lingers in our cultural atmosphere, despite all the current science that has flat-out debunked it. Worries about holding people (or being held) too often or too long. Worries about how hugging and cuddling will make people lazy and spoiled and weak. Not just regarding children, but people of all ages. The message is still out there, though it is wrong. Be on the lookout.

That’s the first invitation, and here is the second: embrace the hug. Make it a habit. See it as fundamental justice work. See it as a central part of your spiritual practice. Consider the top ten benefits involved:

Costs nothing
Boosts your immune system
Builds self-esteem
Fosters self-acceptance
Alleviates tension
Reduces aggression and social violence
Saves heat
Is portable
Requires no special setting or equipment
Feels incredibly good!

Having said all this, I do want to add one caveat. Hugging is not as easy as it sounds. So many of us have experienced touch deprivation and, as Harlow’s primate studies suggest, the long-lasting result is a discomfort with touch. It’s so ironic. Touch being a basic human need, and yet, we can find ourselves uneasy with the hunger, we can find ourselves struggling with it, we can sometimes even find ourselves misunderstanding it and giving it the wrong name. Hungering for touch, but thinking that this necessarily means sex. The wish to be cuddled legitimated only if it is accompanied by sex.

A lot more could be said here, but the basic point is this: to feed our touch hungers, we may have to first build up a tolerance for it, get used to it. And then there’s the need to be appropriate. Make sure the person you desire to touch gives their consent first. Ask, Can I give you a hug? A hug, a handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a comforting rub on the back are all examples of appropriate touch.

Finally, there is this. My third and last invitation to you today. It’s about anticipating miracles when we extend love through a caring touch. Sometimes the people we hug—because of that hug, because of a connection through which, somehow, all the lost parts come together and we experience a wholeness and a knowing that transcends language—sometimes those people stay with you forever, and you are never the same again. You can never underestimate the power of a hug to change lives. “Reflections of grace in every embrace.” The Spirit of Life in all its fullness coming through.

Go back with me to another hospital. Not the one where Rachel Naomi Remen was doing her pediatric internship, where she wandered about as a secret kisser. This other hospital is in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and the medical professional in question was a young nurse who was not a secret kisser, but openly affectionate. Unafraid. One day, she spotted a young boy, miserable-looking, anxious and fretful because he was scheduled for surgery, and it was coming up soon. She just came and sat down beside him, quietly comforted him. Took him in her arms and loved him. His name was Anthony. The experience was so powerful for this young nurse that she walked away thinking to herself, “If I ever have another son, I’m going to call him Anthony.”

That young nurse was my mother. This is the story of how I got my name.

Never underestimate the power of touch.