In the June Discover Magazine is an article about epigenetics; in particular, the way genes are turned on and off by the way a rat pup was raised. When the mother licked the pup many times over the course of the day, the pup became a more confident adult, open to new experiences and to being with other rats. If the pup had a mother not given to licking, as adults they were more anxious, less open to the new. When the pup of a non-licker was given to a foster mother who was a licker, the rat had the same outcome as the pups genetically related to that mother. It was a more confident, less startle-prone rat. This study made clear how strong the effect of early upbringing is on the personalities of the adults. In Harry Harlow’s research with monkeys, young monkeys would choose a cuddly surrogate mother over a wire one that had milk. Comfort and touch were more important than food. Untouched monkeys in his research became psychotic, or violent sociopaths. This has to make you worry about cultures that are very reserved regarding physical contact, who don’t touch each other even in families.
I remember reading that baboons carry their babies around for months after they are born, easing the shock of separation from the mother’s body. It makes me sad to see a mother carrying her infant in one of those V-shaped baby-buckets, an idea born of marketing. The pediatrician that used to live upstairs always carried her baby on her hip, and it was a very confident baby.
People can go to psychiatrists for years trying to understand the reasons for their anxiety, and though they surely gain in overall self-awareness they may never know that they were seldom held as a baby, that being out there alone in the world too soon was scary. The attitude of vigilance is shaped right then by the customs of the group into which they were born. The particular way this attitude manifests may be genetic, but the disposition of fear is conditioned.
The good news is the brain is malleable, always reordering in relation to the environment to which it adapts. Every time we touch a friend we perform a little act of healing. The problems due to lack of touch in the past can be soothed by caring touch in the present. Touch is a powerful antidote to stress chemicals. Temple Grandin, uncomfortable with touching people as part of her Asperger’s Syndrome, made a hug machine, a bed that bent to push on her sides to reduce the tension in her body. I feel that comforting sensation whenever I lean back on my very soft couch. It may not produce the oxytocin that creates long term bonding but the pleasure tells me it definitely produces endorphins, like it probably did for the monkeys choosing the cuddly surrogate mother, and endorphins reduce stress.
Wilhelm Reich thought that sexual union was necessary for people to have enough independence of character to think for themselves. Without it he felt that people turned to the group and the attitudes and thinking of the herd. They found their connection to others in agreement with the cultural norms. Thinking about the rat study, it would seem that caring touch of any kind, creating connectedness, builds the confidence necessary to embrace difference, in oneself and others. A light touch on the forearm is enough to get good chemicals flowing. Every time we touch we create a physical image of connection and build a more connected self-representation in the brain. Even when we weren’t raised to touch others, it’s something that can to be developed. Our physiology needs it and more confident independent thinkers can change the world. More love, right from the start of life, in every cultural group, is the force that could turn the global trajectory from the fear-based attitudes of greed and domination that are ruining the planet to a place where cooperation and caring can begin the process of regeneration.