Touch. The neglected sense?

Dr Louisa Baillie

Just on two years ago I got the phone call I didn’t want, that my dear friend Alison was close to passing away. Would I like to join her family sitting in vigil as she slept? Of course. That was hard to do, though, to walk into her bedroom and see her parents, her husband, her three children, a couple of other friends and a minister seated around her bed, all quietly focused on her. She lay curled up like a child, breathing deeply, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I didn’t know quite what to do. Conversation seemed inane.

Then her husband, who was sitting at the head of Alison’s bed, gestured for me to take his place. I did so, and put my hand on her back. Through her cotton t-shirt my palm sensed warmth and softness. It felt the contours of trapezius descending from her neck: an undulation of form across the shoulders dipping to little dimples at the inner edges of the shoulder blades, curving to meet the hard spinous processes at the centre line. As my hand rubbed Alison’s back, I no longer felt awkward. I felt peaceful. I stroked for our friends who could not be there with her. I stroked for the wonderful laughs we’d had together. I stroked, too, my thoughts to her, reminding her of the strengths and kindnesses she had given me, my fingers whispering that my memories of her would always be with me, and would continue to inspire me.

I was doing what has been done for millions of years: communicating through touch. When pregnant that first little kick, felt like a hiccup, confirms the little being inside is alive. Touch is an immediate instinctive gesture after birth: some animals lick their newborns; we wipe, wash, cuddle. We sooth our babies with touch when they are colicky, feverish or simply sad. We tickle them until they laugh. A cuddle is often the first remedy for a  child’s fall, graze or bruise. Sensual touch is what young adults begin to seek…. and go seeking through all the years of living. Holding hands – be those hands young and plump or weathered and bony – can send an electrical surge between two people.

Touch. The least glamorous of the senses, yet perhaps the most visceral, and therefore powerful. It’s proven to be essential for healthy growth and wellbeing, yet in our culture it often takes a backstage role in comparison to the other senses: sight, sound, smell and taste. Yet it is with touch, from receptors dispersed throughout the major organ of our skin, that we first sense the world. Our mouths can discern the tiniest crystalline fragment within food or the presence of a single hair, and our fingertips can distinguish a lip from a cup, decipher Braille, identify one grain of sand from another. Importantly, touch is a strong aide memoire. Even now, two years after Alison’s death, I could accurately sculpt her spine from touch memory.

The low priority given to haptic (touch) learning in our culture is evident in our attitudes to the relative importance of learning experiences. For example, it used to be that children’s playgrounds were not only those areas sanctioned by town planning and health and safety legislation. They were the landscape itself: sea and river edges, the pebbles picked up and carefully assessed for shape and weight before being skimmed across water; the kerbs we jumped on and off as we walked to school, the crispy winter-frosted grass we stomped on, the trees we climbed, the piles of gutter leaves we poked. We made mud pies. We sawed wood and hammered nails. In the kitchen we rolled dough and moulded biscuits. Further, Art was a compulsory school subject whose curriculum included making three-dimensional shapes with clay and found objects.

What now  of haptic learning in formal education? Students increasingly learn about the world using digital screens, including, perhaps ironically, touch screens. A medical student, for example, can learn anatomy from 3D and 4D image apps. Any bone, muscle, organ or cell can be viewed on screen, complete or sectioned, magnified or diminished, rotating or stilled. These apps are exciting, and can be good aids to learning, but it is important to realise their limitations. Learning this way, the mind must remember by sight, by lists, by rote learning. No matter how many times the student taps or swipes the touch screen to manipulate the image, the powerful aide memoire of real, visceral touch is never accessed. What of remembering, say, differences between the femur and the humerus by holding them to compare weight, height, depth? What of learning where muscles insert by feeling over specific regions of rough texture? And what of understanding tensile forces by running the finger over parallel strands of calcified bone?

In surgery, for example, excellent depth and length perception is vital. Does this take longer to acquire if a trainee surgeon learns anatomy only from visual models, unsupplemented by haptic learning? What if, as is likely, the trainee has not practiced any technical or art subject since the age of 12, 10 or even younger? Prior haptic experience – such as hammering, drilling and screwing into various grades of hard or soft wood – teaches volumes about force, pressure, depth and angles. Yet, in our schooling system, as soon as a student is deemed ‘academic’, the curriculum is narrowed to the small range of ‘hands-off’ subjects which are prerequisite for entry to courses such as Medicine or Dentistry.

Here is my question: If haptic learning through art-based skills such as sculpting or drawing is not included in the education curriculum, are we actually making it harder for students to succeed?

Dr Louisa Baillie: Dr Louisa Baillie’s primary interest is anatomy of the human form, from both scientific and artistic perspectives. Her study and teaching in Fine Arts, Humanities and Medical faculties, along with her observations and involvement (both governance and personal) with her own children’s learning and development, are compelling her to ask more ‘why’ questions, particularly concerning educational practice and outcomes.

PhD(Otago), DFA(Hons)(Otago), BHSc(Otago)


  • Louisa Baillie’s website:
  • The Wild Network: Learning methods for urban children: is there a “nature deficit disorder” (a phrase coined by David Bond)? Research is clearly showing that increased playtime away from screens benefits educational success as well as emotional happiness. I suggest that one of the reasons why increased educational success occurs is that playtime includes kinetic and touch learning.
  • Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning by Judy Willis
  • A doctor’s touch: A TED talk about touch by Dr Abraham Verghese

4 thoughts on “Touch. The neglected sense?”

  1. Very interesting. The knowledge gained by touch IS so vitally important. I am flooded by memories and knowledge gained through this sense whilst reading your article. it is so much part of our learning and development and our day to day function that it can be taken for granted. Its removal from the equation and the examples you give on this are very poignant. Wood work and art class for all!

  2. More than forty years ago I heard an older lady give a speech about hands. It made a big impression on me then and I have never forgotten some of the things she said. Hands that work, pray, produce music, give comfort, arouse …….and the list went on with word paintings of so many ways we use our hands on our own or with others.
    Your sentiments on touch reminded me so much of her wise sayings. Also focused my thoughts on our eldest daughter who had a terrible life changing episode five months ago and now as a paraplegic has no feeling (or movement) at all from the “bra-line” down. We all take our sense of touch so much for granted. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Lou.

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