What Is Lost in a World Where We Cannot Touch?

picture of five hands touching tree trunk

 

mugshot of chunjie Zhang
Chunjie Zhang

Chunjie Zhang, associate professor of German, recently wrote about how COVID-19 has affected our understanding of the physical world for The Conversation. This is a condensed version.

During one of my daily walks with my toddler, when we passed his favorite playground, I noticed a new sign warning that the coronavirus survives on all kinds of surfaces and that we should no longer use the playground. Since then, I’ve taken great pains to prevent him from touching things.

This hasn’t been easy. He loves to squeeze bike racks and graze tree trunks, jostle bushes and knock on picnic tables. He likes to run his fingers against bars around a swimming pool and pet the chickens at the neighborhood coop.

Whenever I bat his hand away or try to distract him from potentially absorbing these dreaded, invisible germs, I wonder: What’s being lost? How can he possibly indulge his curiosity and learn about the world without his sense of touch?

I find myself thinking about Johann Gottfried Herder, an 18th-century German philosopher who published a treatise on the sense of touch in 1778.

“Go into a nursery and see how the young child who is constantly gathering experience reaches out, grasping, lifting, weighing, touching and measuring things,” he wrote. In doing so, the child acquires “the most primary and necessary concepts, such as body, shape, size, space and distance.”

During this period of social distancing, what sort of void has been created? In our social lives, touches are often subtle and brief – a quick handshake or hug. Yet it seems as though these brief encounters contribute mightily to our emotional well-being.

As a professor, I know it’s been a huge advantage to have digital technology that enables remote learning. But my students are missing out on the little touches, intentional or accidental, from their friends and classmates, whether it’s in the classroom, in dining halls or in their dorms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, touch plays a bigger role in some cultures than in others. Psychologist Sidney Jourard observed the behavior of Puerto Ricans in a San Juan coffee shop and found that they touched one another an average of 180 times per hour. I wonder how they’re handling social distancing. Residents of Gainesville, Florida, are probably having an easier time; Jourard found they only touched twice per hour in a coffee shop.

Social distancing is crucial. But I’m already pining for the day when we can all engage with the world unimpeded, touching without anxiety or hesitation.

We’re more impoverished without it.

 

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