Friday, February 27, 2015

The Human Touch

God, I love hockey. As you may have read in November’s Size Matters, I’m a devoted hockey fan. (Go Lightning!)  I love the speed, the strength, and the beautiful biomechanics of this amazing sport. I also love the rituals following each goal. Here’s how they unfold: the puck hits the back of the net, the shooter raises his stick in triumph, and the team then consummates their achievement with a massive group hug. Fellow teammates pile on in what can only be compared to an anaconda mating ball. It’s a raucous love fest, which is all the more ironic considering the brutal physicality of the sport.

The celebration doesn’t end there. Once the bro-bundle disassembles, the shooter and his line then glide over to tap paws with their benched teammates. But the pinnacle of all hockey celebrations comes at the end of the game when the winning team congregates for what I call “the goalie kiss.” The victors line up in front of their goalie and one-by-one touch helmets, a means of acknowledging his skill. It’s the closest thing to a man-kiss you’ll ever see in American sports.

Hockey is not the only sport that involves teammate touching. In fact, most team sports involve some degree of touch, whether to celebrate an achievement, allay a mistake, or simply encourage one another. A team’s touchability has even been linked to their ranking: the more successful the team, the more they tend to touch (although it’s the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum as to which comes first).

And why do they do this? Because touch is an integral part of human communication.

Our sense of touch begins in our skin. Nerve endings that originate in our dermis send messages via our spinal cord to our brain, where the information is processed. Our brain has evolved two separate pathways to analyze touch. The primary somatosensory cortex deciphers the fundamentals of touch: pressure, texture, vibration, and location, which is critical for navigating our world. But the second pathway is just as critical, for without it, we would respond to external stimuli like automatons. I’m talking about the emotional aspect of touch.

Our complex brain performs a remarkable sensory feat each time we engage in touch: it places that touch in context. It does this by utilizing particular sensors in the skin, which trigger regions of the brain associated with pleasure, pain, and social bonding. And it’s the brain’s dual pathway that explains why the same type of touch can be perceived in widely disparate ways.  

Imagine the touch of a loved one: the reassuring pat of a parent, the warm hand of a child, or the sensual stroke of a lover. These contexts engage sensory fibers that trigger emotional bonding reflexes within our brains. Now compare that to the eerie touch of a drunken stranger who sidles up to you at a bar. Same touch, very different scenario. Our reactions to touch are based on the emotional interpretations produced in our brain. And when it comes to touch, it’s all about context.

Touch is more than a means of engaging our world, it is fundamental to our emotional development. Children deprived of touch not only suffer emotionally, its lack affects their immune response, digestive health, and their ability to integrate in society. That’s because touch forges trust; a response rooted in the chemicals within our brains. In the proper context, touch triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone closely associated with our sense of trust, which explains its role in sex, birth, and breastfeeding. A warm touch also reduces stress by tamping down one of the key stress hormones in the body, cortisol.

And it’s these positive benefits that drive much of the recent research on touch. At the Touch Research Institute (yes, there is such a place) at the University of Miami, scientists are hard at work exploring the emotional benefits of touch. According to their research, touch, in the form of therapeutic massage, can alleviate headaches and anxiety, help with muscular and spinal cord injuries, and reduce stress and pain. The Institute is even exploring how regular massage can ease postpartum depression. It turns out that massaging an expectant mother reduces stress and depression during and after pregnancy, but also benefits the baby by lowering the incidence of premature births and low birth weight among tots. So if your significant other is expecting, be a dear and give her a rub.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The same can be said of touch, only the language of touch goes beyond mere words. Touch speaks to us on a visceral level, stirring emotions that drive us as human beings. Trust, desire, security, and well-being can be relayed without uttering a sound. All it takes is the right touch.

Here's a fascinating read on the subject.

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Why We Kiss
A Mother's Touch
Hurts So Good

Friday, February 20, 2015

Picturing the Dead


Think back to the funerals you’ve attended, particularly the open casket affairs. Do you remember details of the deceased? Their expression, the tone of their skin, the contours of their face? One final question: did you take a picture?

In today’s photomaniacal culture, we take pictures of everything: our pets, our food, and most often, our body parts. But we still tend to shy away from taking pictures of our dead. I find this curious, for it wasn’t always so.

For thousands of years, burials – at least of elites – have been accompanied by some sort of remembrance. Long before photography, this came in the form of death masks. Made from an array of materials, wax, plaster, or in some cases, precious metals, these masks memorialized the dead as they appeared in life (minus the pulse, of course).

One of the oldest and most famous was that of King Tutankhamen. The young king, who died around 1400 B.C., was interred with a splendid gold mask weighing a whopping twenty-four pounds, although the accuracy of the mask is debatable. Since Tut’s time, death masks have been a common means of memorializing the dead. From Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1500s to Sir Isaac Newton in the 1700s and, closer to home, Civil War hero and president, Ulysses S. Grant in the 1800s, these masks capture intricate details of the deceased, as they appeared prior to interment.

But all this changed when photography burst on the scene…

In 1837, Frenchman Louis Daguerre, using a concoction of silver-plated copper, silver iodide, and mercury, was able to create the first permanent image. Referred to as Daguerreotype, this early photographic technique, like most new trends, began as an expensive luxury. Louis’ early photograhy captured images of family and friends and was more expedient and practical than hiring a portrait artist. Parents finally had a means of recording their broods for posterity. The only problem was, many broods did not survive to adulthood. Combine newly developed photo ops with high child mortality and you have a recipe for a morbid yet practical new Victorian fad, postmortem photos.

Known in Latin as memento mori, these ghoulish keepsakes became fashionable on both sides of the pond. At a time when family photos were a desirable commodity, capturing images of the deceased, especially those of children, took on a whole new meaning. The death of a child meant little time to record the child’s image, so when death came swiftly, so did the postmortem photographer. The child was traditionally posed in lifelike manner, sometimes alongside favorite toys or cascades of flowers, or tucked among living family members. Over time, as new techniques made photographs easier and less expensive, even those of modest means could capture images of their dearly departed.
Postmortem photos also accompanied the taming of America’s Wild West. What better way to publicize the death of infamous outlaws than to exhibit photos of their corpses? From the Dalton Gang (whose bank robbing was cut short when the docile townsfolk of Coffeyville, Kansas, gunned them down), to Jesse James (same business, same bloody end), to George “Bittercreek” Newcomb (former member of the Dalton Gang who was offed by his amigos in exchange for a fat bounty), photos of dead outlaws served as proof of the inherent dangers of criminality on the frontier.

In today’s modern culture, postmortem photos fall into a singular category accepted, even coveted, by a morbid public: the dead celebrity. We seem to crave photos of the famous who have met their ends. There are even websites dedicated solely to dead celebs. sports photos of an array of famous corpses, from loveable dictators like Mussolini and Stalin to ghastly morgue shots of Marilyn and Tupac. Even nonhuman notables have made the cut: P.T. Barnum’s prize-winning elephant, Jumbo, was memorialized in a postmortem photograph after he was inadvertently struck by a train while moseying across the tracks (poor Jumbo).

Postmortem photographs have evolved through the ages. What was once a respectable, albeit macabre, means of memorializing the dead has morphed into a tool for gawkers and sensationalists. But even in its current twisted state, postmortem photography has a way of satisfying a visceral desire in all of us: the chance to look death in the face.

Here's a good read on mortuary customs around the world.

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Dead and Lovin' It

Friday, February 6, 2015

Thumbs Up!

Here’s an experiment: try going fifteen minutes without using your thumbs. Bet you can’t do it. We may not give them a second thought, but life would be very difficult without thumbs.

Last week, my left thumb was knocked out of commission after I sustained a painful bite from one of my lovebirds (they really deserve a more appropriate name… devil birds, perhaps). I introduced you to my birds, Tuukka and AndrĂ©, in last February’s Bird Brains. Well, a few days ago, in an attempt to prevent their close encounter with the ceiling fan, I was trimming their wings. I had Tuukka wrapped in a towel and turned on his back, but even with the protection of the towel, he managed to swivel his evil little head and take a hunk out of my thumb. To make matters worse, he tore off a small chunk of skin that for the next few days caught on everything I came in contact with. Putting on socks, toweling off from the shower, getting ice from the freezer – every simple task became a painful ordeal as I tried to manipulate my maimed thumb. It got me thinking about our dependency on thumbs and the crucial role they have played in our evolution.

First we must start with the hand in general. Although we now walk on two limbs, we evolved from four-legged stock, thus we are tetrapods at heart. And the majority of tetrapods sport limbs with five (or fewer) digits. Yes, many a tetrapod has lost a digit here or there. Bat fingers still come in fives but are draped in a leathery wing. Bird fingers come in a bizarre array of digits, depending on the species. And horses’ feet have been whittled down to a single lonely toe. But we humans have maintained the standard five and boast an especially talented member, the fully opposable thumb.

Although our hands and those of our closest relatives, the chimps, are similar in structure, our hands – especially our thumbs – have several key advantages. Our thumbs are longer, stronger, and more maneuverable than those of our primate cousins, whose thumbs lack the musculature of our mighty first digits. And because they are so short, the chimps’ puny thumbs cannot “oppose” their other fingers, and we all know how vital opposable thumbs are. That’s why you’ll never catch a chimp “in a pinch.” They simply lack the ability. Instead, they are forced to press their miniscule thumbs against the sides of their index fingers when picking up small twigs or snatching bugs from the forest floor.

Our opposable thumbs allow us to grip; a crucial skill in making and utilizing tools. Scientists claim the evolution of our “power grip” was crucial to wielding clubs and throwing stones; tasks that would have come in handy when warding off predators and taking down prey. The evolution of the “precision grip,” also made possible by a strong, flexible thumb, would have enhanced toolmaking, allowing our ancestors to construct the intricate objects that would accompany the rise of Homo sapiens.

Powering our thrifty thumbs are three muscles lacking in the chimp hand. These muscles provide strength and control and the small saddle joint on which our thumbs sit is key to its full opposability. So, unlike chimps, we can pinch, pluck, and snap to our hearts' content. In fact, scientists are now examining the role of thumbs in human evolution and, it turns out, those with stronger, more agile thumbs may have had an evolutionary edge over their weaker-thumbed cohorts. The ability to produce more effective tools in greater numbers may have edged out the competition among our hominin ancestors, which makes sense… Gals usually go for the bigger, better tools.

But what about in today’s modern society, where tool production has fallen by the wayside? Fewer folks actually produce their own tools, much less make their own clothing, build their own houses, or grow their own food. Do our thumbs still present an evolutionary advantage?

Perhaps if you’re a habitual gamer. Just ask gamer the importance of thumbs and I’m sure they’ll present a litany of benefits their nimble thumbs afford. Whether they’re blasting their way through Doom, leading expeditions across Monkey Island, or taking down foes in Mortal Kombat, the faster the thumb, the better their chances of conquering the universe. 

Unfortunately, this nerdy set of skills probably doesn’t confer much of an evolutionary advantage. If history is any indication, I doubt the gamers will be outbreeding the rest of us anytime soon. They aren’t exactly renowned for their sexual prowess…

Catch you next time!