Touch is Really Strange

Learn about touch as a fundamental human experience for conveying emotion and promoting health

Touch is Really Strange – Resources

Barry C Smith: We Have Far More Than Five Senses

Professor Barry Smith on sensing

Discusses collaborative research between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists and their discoveries.

The Science of Touching and Feeling | David Linden | TEDxUNC

Videos on Interoception


About Touch is Really Strange

When did you start working on the book?

The idea for a book on touch has been in my head since 2019, but definitely a lockdown project.

The Really Strange series has been huge fun and continues to get heartwarming feedback. There have been suggestions for books on Depression, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Grief or Breath.

Whilst I have some experience with clients with all those topics, I realised I have far more to say about touch. I use touch everyday in normal work life and teach 2 year courses on being skilful with touch.

The goal is to connect to feelings states that are often hidden, rarely simple and sometimes scary.

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What inspired the topic?

In my career I have undergone a paradigm shift in how I understand touch.

With massage, shiatsu and chiropractic I often used strong, quick interventions; poking, prodding, stretching, manipulating. The main goal was freeing up structural issues.

It was fun, but did not work so well with trauma, persistent pain and anxiety.

I now use touch as tool primarily to convey feelings of safety, to support emotional expression and to improve a sense of embodied connection.

Touch Is Really Strange is a celebration of slow, gentle, meditative touch – ‘relational touch’. Touch that is focused on the whole person and all their stories. Touch where the goal is to connect to feelings states that are often hidden, rarely simple and sometimes scary.

How did you collaborate with Sophie?

This is my 4th book with Sophie. I still do not quite understand how she can produce such clear representations of complex ideas so quickly.

Typically I write chunks of 3 or 4 pages developing an argument, sometimes, but not often, with suggestion for images. Within a few days she invariably rocks back with a set of wonderful drawings. Its always exciting waiting to see what appears in my inbox.

The art and colours are all Sophie. In this book she has changed the look a little, the colours are simpler and the style has developed. I love what she has done.

Why is it extremely timely?

We need touch as babies and children to thrive, we ache for touch as adults, and, we fare much worse when we are elderly without touch.

Lockdown has been a massive experiment in non-touching. The stories of people isolated in hospital with only a screen to communicate to loved ones or the images of people on either side of plastic barriers, are heartbreaking.

There now are frequent newspaper articles on the power of touch, that is very new. Lockdown had reinforced the value of touch as ‘social glue’. Casual contacts are essential to our health and help us feel real.

There is great science on the benefits of touch. We need touch as babies and children to thrive, we ache for touch as adults, and, we fare much worse when we are elderly without touch.

What do you hope readers can take away from it?

We can usefully classify two types of touch – quick touch and slow touch. I want people to appreciate that slow touch can communicate powerful emotions. The book reviews the science of ‘interoception’, a kind of slow ‘inward touch’.

The book also offers that all early learning is mediated by meeting a world that pushed back as we explored and moved. We touch the world and the world touches back, not always gently. We learn, and can relearn, safety though processes of touch and being touched.

There are four practical exercises at the end of the book that I hope will help people reframe what is possible when we touch. The book is aimed at anybody interested in touch but especially bodyworkers.

Touch done well can be a huge gift to support potent shifts in our physiology and our sense of wellbeing.

Steve Haines 5 Mar 2021

Relational Touch

Humans are polyrhythmic. With skill, the rhythms sometimes coalesce into a feeling of wholeness.

Touch is enormously powerful. Non-doing, ‘relational touch’, that listens without fixed agendas, supports coherent rhythms and order to emerge.

There is a distinct quality of feeling a whole person.

In addition, there is a distinct quality of feeling a whole person in a wider context that includes the surrounding space.

Aliveness is founded on movement, breath and awareness.

The taoist notion of order in the world as the ‘way’ of least resistance is deeply useful. Manifesting health can appear as elegance and non-striving in our interactions, coupled with a sense of letting go from within.

We can have perceptions of other people, but we can wildly over interpret what we feel. In the absence of the possibility of objective knowing, it is good to be super cautious. Truth emerges in the dynamic between the client and therapist. 

Focus on stories of safety and agency. Expand people’s ‘felt sense’ capabilities. Try shifting the narrative of self away from limiting metaphors of damage and permanency to adaptability and renewal.’

Floating is Not Necessarily Good

As a young child, one of my clients learnt to dissociate when her parents were arguing. When I first started treating her, and did not understand the dissociation model I now work with, we both thought the sessions were productive because she consistently reported a warm, floating quality. A space where her body did not constrain her.

However, her symptoms never changed.

It took me over a year to work out what was going on. Her healing started when she made friends with her ‘boring’ body.

Most people dissociate most of the time, and the pleasant, dream like quality in dissociation is often confusing. Dissociation is surprisingly common and people often frequently enjoy being dissociated. Being in a body is hard work. It is a constant negotiation to clearly map the size, shape and weight of the body.

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Many people can misinterpret the dreamy floaty quality of dissociation as an expansive, spiritual, healing experience. I have treated many long term meditators, yoga teachers and spiritual searchers. The relationship to the body offered through an understanding of trauma and dissociation has been surprising and beneficial for many of them. It is essential to not be too quick to let go of the body.

Before we can transcend our body we have to have a body.

For most of us there is a lifetime of work involved in exploring our flesh.

Deepening into our bodies is the necessary step that allows us to widen our perceptual horizons and drop into deeper tides and stillness. It is true that the sense of the body can become much more diffuse and fade into the background. However the form is never lost, as in dissociation, and is always available for our return.

A simple tool for health is practicing mapping out and connecting to your size, shape and weight as accurately as possible.

The bigger the gap between our real body and our virtual body (the perceived map we make of our body) the greater our pain, anxiety and depression.

Awareness Exercise: Exploring how you map your body

1 Start out by sitting or lying quietly

Take some time to slow down and explore your sense of your body.

2 Orient to the size shape and weight of your body.

Deepen your awareness to really focus on simple body sensations – the size, shape and weight.

Notice the bits that are hidden or missing or hard to contact.

Try noticing if your perception of both your legs is the same. It is not uncommon for one leg to be quite different. Is one side hazy or heavy or floating or sinking?

Do you have small far way feet or big hands? Can you feel aliveness inside your belly?

Compare top to bottom, left to right, middle to periphery.

3 ‘How is your brain mapping out your body?’

Use a light, responsive approach here. The goal is develop awareness of present time sensations. Try to find simple, words. Slow down too many stories, encourage differentiation of sensations.

Be curious: ‘So thats interesting, my brain is mapping out my left leg differently’ Try to just notice what you are feeling for a bit. Try not to want it to change.

Touch Slideshow