The Impossibility of Hugging Yourself, or How Touch Opens the Doors of Perception in Apes and Humans

As I mentioned in my first post, I had the opportunity to conduct research at Gombe National Park several years ago. In one of the trips from the national park to town to get provisions (and experience the luxury of a cold soda and indoor plumbing where you are not concerned about snakes), I started thinking about the infants I was seeing around town, wondering what was like to be carried around all day in a sling. This image was strangely familiar; when I was a child my parents had a coffee farm in the countryside in Colombia, and Gumabiano women who lived around the area used a similar style to carry their children. After months of observing mother chimpanzees carrying their infants ventrally and on their backs, I returned to Canada and observed the popularity of sling carriers among caregivers. Thus, infants in close contact with their mothers seem to be a cross-cultural/cross-species unifying factor everywhere I went.

After researching the subject, I found that one of the most wide-spread techniques of mother-infant interaction across human cultures is the mother holding the baby close, providing the infant with constant contact (see Tronick, 1995 for an overview). As argued, this mode of interaction allows infants to develop in ways similar to infants in cultures where face-to-face interaction is privileged. The next obvious question is then, why is this form of interaction so prevalent across cultures and species? What is it about touch that seems to enable the mental development of such diverse groups?

To answer this question I will focus on the differences between vision and touch. There are several elements in this discussion; however, in an attempt to illustrate the main points, I will limit my discussion to what de Vignemont and Massini (2014) consider as the two characteristics essential to touch that are not manifest in other senses (or at least not as prevalent in other senses). The first characteristic is what these authors call “the objectivity of touch.” When we experience an object through touch, we have a clear notion that the object exists independently of us. The authors argue that when touching an object it is necessary to feel the resistance of the external world, to feel that there is something different than myself exerting a counteracting force against me when I touch an object.

Using gaze-following as the paradigmatic way of understanding JA requires that we link gaze and the understanding of an object outside in the world to which another human can direct her attention. Thus, for an infant to use gaze, s/he has to undergo three steps of understanding: understand another organism, understand the object outside in the world and understand the relation between that organism and the object outside in the world. Meanwhile, touch is a mode of perception that allows the infant to acquire immediate knowledge of an object outside in the world.

Moreover, Klatsky and Lederman (2002) argue that while certain kinds of touch involve only sensory receptors in the skin, haptic touch also includes proprioception (sense of bodily position) and kinesthesis (sense of body movement). When considering haptic touch, we envision an organism that has to reach out and investigate with her body in order to determine which features belong to which objects; on this view, touch is intimately tied to exploratory activity. Fulkerson (2014) (see also his posts in The Brains Blog) focuses on touch as haptic touch, as he argues that is impossible to conceive touch without the involvement of the body. This involvement of the body in haptic touch provides a unisensory form of perception. This means that the sensory features are not described as different perceptions but are predicates of the perceptual object.

When we apply this idea to infant development, it becomes clear that focusing on the sense of touch forces us to see the infant in a more active role where s/he has to “reach out” towards the world and comprehend an object outside themselves that is different from them. Through this investigation touch becomes a sense that provides organism with a sense of objects in the world. Through haptic touch an infant is able to understand that there other objects around her and that there are several features attached to those objects. This seems important for understanding commonalities between the development of infants in both apes and humans because the focus becomes the active role played by the infant instead of a passive one dependent on an active caregiver.

It may be argued that sometimes touch is passive; for example, a mother may caress the infant; therefore, there is no active search. However, even in the perception of passive touch, it may be argued that the infant has to comprehend something about his/her own body to understand that perception. Following our example, the infant has to understand that s/he is still, while the mother is moving, which brings us to the second main difference between touch and other senses.

According to de Vignemont and Massini (2014), the second main difference is that touch can be characterized in terms of bipolarity between the subject and the external world, that is, in every instance of touch presents us with an external world and the awareness of our own bodies.

This approach to touch has been criticized by authors such as Ratcliffe (2012), who argues that touch does not require the experience of contact or boundaries. Instead, he argues that touch is about commonalities and relatedness between people. He offers as an example the case of Nick Yarris, a Death-row inmate, whose isolating experience where there was no human contact made him feel like a “bleak empty vessel.” In my view, this example is the perfect illustration of why touch is about boundaries. When describing this solitude, Yarris tells the story of how he started making his arm numb so that that he would feel a “strange” human hand on his face. If boundaries were not important, Yaris could have hugged himself, but as anyone who has ever tried to console him/herself in this way (or attempted to tickle oneself), knows this is highly ineffective. To count as a hug or a caress these has to be an other – someone beyond the boundary of oneself – who provides that affective touch. Understanding touch in this way will help us understand the empirical evidence of forms of touch that are intrinsically affective (see for example McGlone et al. 2007).

In summary, through using touch as a mode of perception, the infant can perceive the “other” and her own body at the same time. Now, the really interesting part of this story comes when we consider the first external object that the infant perceives through touch. This first external object is the same in all primates: the mother, for most monkeys and apes, and caregivers for human infants. When an infant experiences touch with his/her caregiver in different contexts, the infant will experience the caregiver’s reaction to the world, providing him/her with information about the external world, and more importantly, the infant will perceive all of this in relation to his/her own reactions to the caregiver’s reactions.

Consider the following example: a mother is walking in a dangerous area carrying a baby close to her chest. She sees a stranger approaching, and she feels frightened. The infant, who perceives the mother’s tensing muscles as a response, becomes agitated. The mother realizes the stranger is a policeman, and she relaxes; she feels the infant’s agitation and caresses the infant’s head; the infant calms down. Without gaze, the infant in this example was able to perceive through direct contact her/his mother reacting to the world, her/his own reactions to her/his mother’s reactions, and then modify her/his reactions based on another kind of touch. Through touch, the infant is able to acquire different perspectives and their relation to the world.

In my next post I will explore how touch, as the mode of interaction between caregiver and infant, becomes the ontogenetic precursor of social communication.


de Vignemont and Massin. 2014: Touch. In Matthen (ed.) Oxford Handbook of philosophy of perception, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fulkerson, M. 2014: The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Klatzky, R. L. and Lederman, S. J. 2002: Touch. In A. F. Healy, R. W. Proctor (eds.), Experimental Psychology. New York: Wiley.

McGlone, F., Vallbo, A.B., Olausson, H., Löken, L.S., Wessberg, J. 2007: Discriminative touch and emotional touch. Can J Exp Psychol 61:173–183

Ratcliffe, M. 2012: What is Touch? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (3): 413 – 432.

Tronick, E. 1995: Touch in mother-infant interaction. In T. F. Field (ed.), Touch in Early Development. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


  1. Doug Robinson

    In Thought as a System David Bohm writes of “the woman who woke in the middle of the night hitting herself. What had happened was that she’d had a stroke that damaged her sensory nerves, which would tell what she was doing. But the stroke left the motor nerves so that she could still move her muscles. Apparently she had touched herself, but since she wasn’t being informed that it was her own touch she assumed right away that it was an attack by somebody else. Then the more she defended the worse the attack got. When the light was turned on, the proprioception was reestablished because she could then see with her eyes what she was doing, so she stopped hitting herself” (121).

    Of course this isn’t quite right: what happened when she turned on the light was not that “proprioception was reestablished” but that another bodily monitoring system was activated, the visual. Our proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular senses normally work together to create a coherent sense of ourselves interacting with the world; the woman’s stroke had taken out her proprioception, and in the dark she had no visuals (and in bed she had no vestibular sense).

    What’s interesting, though, is that in that situation she had no boundaries with the world—and it was only by turning on the light that she could reestablish some sense of boundedness.

    Notice also that she didn’t experience the touch as neutral: she experienced it as an attack. In other words, it was not just alien: it was actively and meaningfully alien. Another person’s touch is not just “not ours”; it is a positive something. It is an attack, a handshake, a caress, an unwanted grope, etc. Or a tickle. Could this in fact be why we can’t tickle ourselves? Because what Bohn calls the (collective) proprioception of thought structures tickling/ticklishness relationally?

    • Maria Botero

      Hi Doug,
      What an interesting example, thank you. I am particularly attracted to the way you link the example with the idea of her not having a notion of the boundaries of the world. Many authors, such as Ratcliffe (2012), provide examples that are meant to show how we do not experience this boundary when using touch. For example, he argues that when someone touches your back, you feel the hand but not the shirt on your back; when you walk, you feel the pavement and not the soles of your shoes. I believe that these examples can be explained if it is acknowledged that the boundary depends on what you are paying attention to. For example, after a snowstorm, I am paying attention to how slippery the sidewalk is, and, because of that, my perception is focused on the pavement while walking. However, if I bought comfort inserts that promise to make my shoes more comfortable, I will very likely feel the soles of my shoes rather than the pavement when walking. One of the main characteristics of touch is that, for the most part, touch has an active role (even in passive touch) where the subject searches for what interests her. Now, what is really interesting about your example is the fact that she constructed that touch as, in your words, “actively and meaningfully alien.” My guess is that if I had the same disorder but were sleeping with someone that I cared for (my significant other, my cat, my baby), I would not be likely to think that there was something menacing touching me. This is what I find so fascinating about the role of touch in social cognition. Touch is an immediate way of connecting “me” and the “other” in a way that demonstrates what we are paying attention to, what we know about the world, and what we know about others. I also think that this example demonstrates in a very nice way the question about using different modes of perception. The question in particular that interests me (and that I will expand upon in the next posts) is how do we understand this process in species that do not privilege the same modes that we do? In newborns whose eyesight is not yet very well developed but who are starting to make sense of the world around them?

      • Doug Robinson

        Thanks, Maria!

        You mentioned the possibility that the touch in that bed (after the women’s debilitating stroke) came from a beloved cat, which would be a good example of that other species–which again brings us back to your account of the chimps in the wild, who have not picked up any behavioral habits from humans. Cats of course have. Cats touch humans in very human ways. They will touch us on the shoulder to get our attention, for example. Cats (and dogs) become so human-like that we often begin to think of our pets as little hairy human quadrapeds.

        And yet of course they aren’t. Our male cat loves to play-fight with me–but he tends to assume not that he’s another human but that I’m another cat, with tough fur-protected skin. He play-fights very rough. My wife, whom he treats like his girlfriend and personal possession, will warn me he’s getting angry, and I should stop–and he’s typically acting angry about then … but also purring. The “attack” is in quotes. As Erving Goffman would say, he’s “rekeying” the attack as play–or perhaps the play as a mock-attack. He’s having fun, getting enormous pleasure out of the play–and pretending to be angry, because that just heightens his enjoyment.

        Also, I think that for him every playful touch from me is at some level not just another cat’s paw, but also a mouse: something to be pounced on, pinned down, claws out. We’re not just playing tag, or gotcha; he’s playing at catching a mouse.

        What interests me is what organizes these behavioral orientations and assumptions. Specifically, to what extent are they hard-wired, and to what extent are they cultural achievements? I think, at least in social animals, they always must be some combination of the two. (When our cats were small, they had no idea what to do with a mouse. They had to learn the “instinct” to play cat-and-mouse.)

        • Maria Botero

          Hi Doug,
          Your example makes me think of two aspects of the human and non-human animal relationship: an observational one and a content one. I always found fascinating the “I am a dog person” vs. “I am a cat person” fight because people who subscribe to this fight seem to have an intuitive sense of understanding one species but seem to be completely baffled by the behavior of the other species. I wonder where this difference comes from? What kind of theory-ladenness is necessary for being able to observe and understand a particular species so well (much as you understand the behavior of your cat) but another species not so well? I think this question can be applied to more formalized forms of observation. Why do some scientists observe the existence of TofM and JA and some others do not? What factors are playing a role behind the way we observe? Gender? Culture? Paradigms? Second, I am interested in the role touch plays in this relationship and how culture mediates this relationship. Both cats and dogs respond very well to our primate enjoyment of grooming. This seems an intuitive way of relating to each other. However, it seems that our culture is able to affect the ways in which a species commonly interacts. Dogs are an excellent example. Consider not only the studies showing that dogs are good at understanding pointing but also that it has been shown that dogs have the ability to follow human gaze and that they experience a similar oxytocin-gaze positive loop when engaging in mutual gaze with humans (Nagasawa at al., 2015). This illustrates the fact that interaction through gaze is a human trait that can be “imposed” on certain species. My guess is that culture also plays a role in the way we interact with cats, but until we figure out a way of bribing them to do an experiment, we will never know.

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