If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito. – The Dali Lama
That quote, so empowering, so metaphorically apt, is one of my all-time favorites.
Until last night—when I literally tried to sleep with a mosquito in my room. And instead of snoozing until nine-thirty or so (hey, it’s summer for me), I was up at six trying to figure out why my back felt like a royal feast for his mosquito majesty, Sir Sucks-a-Lot.
Tactile experience is one of the more overlooked senses that we have. Usually sight is favored (especially because that’s the only way to currently get my blog). And then sound. And then a random ordering of how quickly you can remember the other three.
But when you really consider it, touch is quite vital. In fact, it is our most developed sensory modality at birth—and heck, without touch, you wouldn’t be able to feel the floor beneath your feet in order to walk. However, there’s another way that touch is important: it’s a manner through which we can communicate emotion.
Although we often think of touch conveying care or warmth, researchers wanted to know how well it could communicate other, discrete emotions. To test this, researchers had two participants sit at a table that was separated by a heavy black curtain.
One person (the decoder) would stick his or her arm under the curtain, while the other person (the encoder) was then shown a note card with a specific emotion (e.g., anger, disgust, sympathy, etc.) and told to communicate that emotion through touching the other person’s arm.
And in both the United States and Spain, the decoders were able to accurately understand seven different emotions (the three already mentioned, plus happiness, gratitude, love, and fear). All of this through a simple touch!
However, not only can touch convey emotions like this, but it can also convey intentions—or rather, persuasion.
A classic study from 1976 examined this with the help of librarians. That is, when patrons came to check out a book, the librarian either returned their library card as normal, or they momentarily placed their hand on the patron’s hand when returning the card.
The results write: “A casual touch of a very short duration in a Professional/Functional situation had positive consequences for the
recipient” (419). Not only did the recipient of the touch have a more positive mood afterward (an effect not differing by recipient gender), but the recipients also rated that library as a whole more positively.
So the next time you touch someone (wow, that sounds less than right—but you know what I mean), keep in mind all the consequences such an expression can encompass.
As for that mosquito in my room, I think he knows what emotion I was conveying when I touched him back.
Hertenstein, M. et al. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6(3), 528-533.
Fisher, J., Rytting, M., & Heslin, R. (1976). Hands touching hands: Affective and evaluative effects of an interpersonal touch. Sociometry, 39(4), 416-421.