Is there really nothing new under the sun?

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of that passage from Ecclesiastes. It’s not that I have experienced everything, seen everything, and I certainly haven’t thought of everything; I have no proof whereof I speak, and yet… And yet it seems to wear the ring of understanding, doesn’t it? ‘It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen’ as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said.

I suspect there’s something truly atavistic about touch. Something inescapable, at any rate. Birth, suckling, and rearing are universals –at least for mammals- and each involves contact, albeit a closeness that often diminishes with a maturity that adopts different forms of communication. Different types of connection. But its primacy never really disappears –whether in fighting, copulating, or even greeting, it lingers like a shadow never fully in the background.

I’ve written about it before, sometimes vicariously, with a soft brush, sometimes even with a gentle nudge, and once when I was moved sufficiently to address it as a subject worthy of a title: Touch  https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/01/25/touch/ But somehow, it creeps back again and again as needful as a hungry child to be noticed.

Like the fabled Phoenix, it rose anew in an article in the CBC news, and as a still-unrequited lover, I have rushed to it again with open arms: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4363121 It’s amazing how such a basic thing as touch seems to require mention again and again – as if without the attention it would slip beneath the waves like a curious seal and be seen no more. As if we continually need the reminder to see our noses.

And each time it surfaces in a different place than we expect. ‘In the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that our hairy skin has cells that respond to a stroking touch. It’s a trait we share with other mammals. Now psychologists in England say their work shows, for the first time, that a gentle touch can be a buffer against social rejection, too. […] The study builds on previous ones showing that receiving touch from loved ones after a physical injury is supportive.’ -a coals-to-Newcastle study you may ask? I mean, really… But I suppose that statistical validation is a way of indicating that it is a conclusion once-removed – that the findings are hopefully divorced from any possibility of emotional contagion. Still…

It continues, ‘Pain is ubiquitous across medical disciplines. Yet touch has been shown to improve outcomes in people with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia and in pre-term infants, the study’s authors said.’ Once again, the older and wiser amongst you might have to fight against the urge to roll your eyes. Of course touch is important, I hear you whisper, as you move on to another, less flagrantly transparent article.

There was a point to underlining the glaring intuitively common sense observations, however –but not, alas, until the nether end of the article. ‘Our brains are attuned to combining information from our five senses. And when much of our time is spent engaging with social media, which relies on visual and sound cues alone, it’s easy to forget the power of touch.’ This, in an era of proxy reaching, and touching a friend online -‘just “liking” a post or texting an emoji.’

Maybe it’s more obvious to those of us who didn’t grow up with a smartphone in our hands or a screen in our face, but it still needs repeating: Of course touch is important! So is actual eye contact. And body language. There’s something about proximity that facilitates communication and realistic interpretation.

A study at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia –one of undoubtedly many of this type- tracked ‘100 mothers and babies over four years [and] they found mothers who used skin-to-skin contact reported breastfeeding for a longer period, less postpartum depression, and a closer relationship with their babies compared with mothers who did not use the method.’ Without re-stating the obvious, the contention was that ‘Because the baby is being held so close to the mother, the mother learns the baby’s signals…’ And, of course, then the usual self-evident trope that ‘It’s not just newborns who benefit from skin-to-skin cuddling — moms do, too’ with the requisite reductionist explanation ‘For the mother, the close contact stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which helps to promote maternal feelings’ as if a physiological justification for the observation were required to bolster the issue… Just in case.

Surely we know all this, though. Surely, if we look around us we can see touch in action -even in a downtown shopping mall.

I rarely go to malls -I find the crowds of strangers annoying- but every so often, the anthill instinct surfaces, and I dip my foot in the colony just for the experience.

I am usually wary of casual contact and, as on a busy sidewalk in the city, there is an unconscious dance to avoid touching strangers. It’s not a fear thing, nor a dread of pestilence; I do not feel uneasy for myself or my property, so much as that my closeness, however accidental and unintended, might be misconstrued. Touch can be therapeutic and welcomed, for sure, but it can also be unwarranted -misunderstood by a stranger – frightening or threatening if unrequested.

I picked the wrong time to test the mall, I think. It was noon and filled with casual shoppers, their eyes on window displays, and bags akimbo, they wandered aimlessly from store to store, depending on a mall-acquired skill to avoid the Brownian motion alive around them. Me? I felt more dizzy from the chaos than innately protected, and found myself leaning rather self-consciously on a pillar near a bank of seats, watching for a vacancy to rest. I admit I shouldn’t have let down my guard, but I am basically a visiting country mouse -a mall virgin, I’m afraid.

Still, I didn’t expect to be knocked down by a distracted shopper –a thin, middle aged woman at that- but I suppose that anybody, if hit unawares, would go down as quickly. At least that was my embarrassed conceit on my way to the floor.

The woman, a business executive by the look of her dark-blue pant suit and blindingly white blouse, was mortified and stooped to help me up. I must have looked confused –I’m sure I was- at the sudden horizontality of my position when she first extended her hands to me.

“Are you alright, sir?” she said, her eyes leaning heavily on my face. “I’m so sorry… I don’t know how I managed that…” she added, her words thick with remorse.

Sometimes, I think I look younger than my years –one gets used to the reflection in the mirror- but obviously she saw me in a different, more fraught light, and her expression melted as she mistook my surprise for fragility. Suddenly she hugged me –a brief, but reflexive attempt at apology. It couldn’t have lasted more than a fraction of a second, but it was as if, for that instant, she was not a stranger, but a caring person responding to the needs of another.

She blushed at my smile, then touched my sleeve as she walked away, her head disappearing in the crowd like a bird in a forest. But I have not forgotten that heartfelt touch. Some things are special –ordinary or not. Touch is a gift, and I felt unexpectedly blessed…

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The Unheard Problem with Noise

Life in the city can be noisy. That’s not where I live, so I find my occasionally unavoidable forays into its bowels almost unbearable.

“How can you live like this?” I asked a friend as we sat on the patio of a coffee shop on a downtown street as an ambulance screamed by.

“What do you mean?” she answered, looking at me with puzzled eyes, her coffee on it’s way to her mouth undisturbed.

The noise had been so obviously intrusive and irritating, that words failed me for a moment. I raised my arm and pointed along the busy, cacophonous street.

“All the people, you mean?” She smiled innocently and shrugged. “It’s near lunch time, I guess,” she said, and picked up her coffee for another sip.

I rested my hands on the table to steady them before I made an attempt to lift my own cup. “Don’t you find it rather…” I paused as I searched for the proper word to describe my angst. “… turbulent?” It was probably not the best description, but I still felt agitated.

The smile wavered for a moment as she tried to decipher my question. Then she sighed –or at least seemed to sigh –I couldn’t hear her soft intake of air in the din that vibrated and careened around us as if we were sitting in the middle of a traffic jam at rush hour. “You’ve been away too long, my friend,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

I attempted to return her smile, but I think my lips were quivering too much for it to become the answer she expected. “Doesn’t all the noise bother you Janet?”

She blinked her eyes slowly in reply. It might have been seductive in another setting, but here it only seemed like a rebuke. “You learn to block it out. It’s an urban adaptation…” Her face softened at my obvious discomfort. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I even hear it anymore unless it’s so loud it scares me…”

That seemed counterproductive to me, but I didn’t say so at the time. Warning signals are surely just that: alarms that are meant to alert those in the vicinity to potential risks. They’re supposed to provoke a reaction. In my case it probably heightened my awareness of the risks of signal fatigue. Of crying wolf too often. Perhaps it also sensitized me to research that recognized this and attempted novel technological solutions: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170714-the-brain-hacking-sound-thats-impossible-to-ignore

The alerting signal the article discussed ‘was inspired by neuroscience research on sounds that affect the emotion-processing centres of the brain.’ It was originally used in Malawi, Africa, ‘To alert Malawi locals to HIV tests and health checks from a mobile clinic […].’

The problem there, as here, was the brain’s tendency to adapt to frequently discordant and unpleasant ambient noise –blocking it from conscious awareness, in effect. It ‘was inspired by the neuroscience research of Luc Arnal at the University of Geneva. Arnal had investigated what neural connections are activated when humans hear a sound that is particularly difficult to ignore: screaming. Scans revealed that, when we hear the characteristically rough, distressing sound of a scream, the amygdala – which processes fear reactions – is activated in our brains. “What I found is that this roughness doesn’t go through the same neural pathways used by speech,” he says.

It means that screams don’t just get our attention, they immediately prompt us to react in some way. We’re stimulated to actually do something. […] Arnal had previously suggested that this insight could be used to design better alarms and sirens that don’t just make us freeze when we hear them, but actually invoke a more constructive reaction.’

An American artist, Jake Harper, had previously recorded  the music of a local band in Malawi and edited it into a form that ‘sounds like nothing you’d recognise from a street elsewhere in the world. Strangely unlike a conventional emergency services siren, instead it is a discordant mashup of musical fragments and intermittent white noise.’

‘Harper spent months experimenting with audio software to try and come up with a noise that sounded man-made enough to distinguish it from human or animal voices in the bush, but which was also not overly harsh or distressing. Getting the balance right – appealing to the emotion-processing parts of the brain without inducing fear or shock – was tough. The results were encouraging. Harper says that on average, a mobile clinic would test 40 people per day for HIV. “During the trial we had 160 people come to get tested,” he says.’

For Arnal, ‘that succeeds in meeting the three key goals here: produce a sound that grabs people’s attention; avoid distressing them; make sure it is distinguishable from non-manmade sounds in the environment.’

‘Our understanding of how audio influences human psychology has evolved greatly in recent years, according to Annett Schirmer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For example, studies have shown that people’s neural activity can be co-ordinated with the help of external rhythms. This is exactly the sort of effect you would expect from, say, factory or farm labourers working in time to a song – or the effect of cohesion observed in musicians performing together.

“Music stimulation entrains certain mental processes and aligns them between individuals […]” However, she warns there is also a dark side to using music to alter behaviour.

“Shops use music to make customers stay longer or increase the likelihood that they purchase things,” she notes.’

This is exciting stuff for sure. As Arnal observes, ‘In the future, sound that provokes responses deep in our brains could be more thoughtfully designed into the built environment.’ But we humans are an adaptive lot. We quickly learn to ignore sounds that might have been initially distressing when we first heard them. Apart from the morbid curiosity aroused by it, an ambulance wailing past soon loses its relevance if there is no one nearby who needs it. And if it becomes a too frequent and unwelcome guest, surely the doors to our ears would quickly become unwilling to allow it entrance. I’m not advocating for the Luddites, though, just for an appreciation of Darwin.

Or, perhaps, for the sentiment of Oliver Wendell Holmes as he observed in one of his poems: And silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound.