Touching – the human significance of the skin
The greatest sense in our body is our touch sense. It is probably the chief sense in the processes of sleeping and waking; it gives us our knowledge of depth or thickness and form; we feel, we love and hate, are touchy and are touched, through the touch corpuscles of our skin.
J. Lionel Taylor, The Stages of Human Life.
The skin, like a cloak, covers us all over, the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs, our first medium of communication, and our most efficient of protectors. The whole body is covered by skin.
In the evolution of the senses, the sense of touch was undoubtedly the first to come into being. Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is the sense which became differentiated into the others, a fact that seems to be recognized in the age -old evaluation of touch as “the mother of the senses”.
Touch is the earliest sensory system to become functional in all species and the earliest to develop in the human embryo. Perhaps next to the brain, the skin is the most important of all our organ systems.
The skin in common with the nervous system arises from the outermost of the three embryonic cell layers, the ectoderm. The ectoderm also gives rise to the hair, teeth, and the sense organs of smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch – everything involved with what goes on outside the organism. The nervous system is, then, a buried part of the skin, or alternatively the skin may be regarded as an exposed portion of the nervous system.
As Frederic Wood Jones, the English anatomist put it, “He is the wise physician and philosopher who realises that in regarding the external appearance of his fellow-men, he is studying the external nervous system and not merely the skin and its appendages.” As the most ancient and largest sense organ of the body, the skin enables the organism to learn about its environment. It is the medium by which the external world is perceived. Furthermore, the skin carries its own memory of conditions experienced in the remote and immediate past.
The skin’s growth and development proceed throughout life, and the development of its sensitivities depends largely upon the kind of environmental stimulation it receives.
A human being can spend his life blind and deaf and completely lacking the senses of smell and taste, but he cannot survive at all without the functions performed by the skin. The sense of pain, mediated from the skin to the brain, provides an essential warning system designed to compel attention.
Licking and Loving
The “washing” the mammalian mother gives her young, virtually from the moment they are born, in the form of licking, isn’t washing at all, but something fundamentally very different and very necessary, a proper kind of cutaneous stimulation essential for the adequate organic and behavioral development of the organism. If the animal’s skin is not properly stimulated at this moment, the animal generally dies. The evidence indicated that the genitourinary system especially simply would not function in the absence of cutaneous stimulation. It was also found that early infantile stimulation in animals exerts a highly beneficial influence upon the immunological system , having important consequences for resistance to infectious and other diseases.
Hence, when we speak of “licking and love”, or skin stimulation, we are quite evidently speaking of a fundamental and essential ingredient of affection, and equally clearly of an essential element in the healthy development of every animal organism.
But, why humans don’t lick their babies? Monkeys and apes have substituted licking by grooming with the teeth and after with the hands. In short, it may well be that there has been an evolutionary development from licking, to tooth-combing (as among lemurs), to finger-grooming, to caressing, as in chimpanzee, gorilla and humans.
Therefore caressing is to the young of the human species virtually as important a form of experience as licking is to the young of other mammals.
Then, it would seem evident that one of the elements in the genesis of the ability to love is “licking” or its equivalent in other forms of pleasurable tactile stimulation.
References: this text was entirely extracted from “Touching – the human significance of the skin” by Dr. Ashley Montagu.