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Though published (way!) back in 1990, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses is as alluring as the scent of violets. Split into the five senses, to which is added a chapter on synesthesia, Ackerman – a poet – explores her material with a lyrical wonder that is infectious and great reading.

A cursory glance at the fascinating chapter on (the very under-rated sense of) touch will give you an idea of what I mean.  We learn that safe-crackers sandpaper their fingertips to make “the top layer of skin thinner so that the touch receptors will be closer to the surface.”  There is a wonderful little exploration of all those idioms that involve touch, such as: how we are ‘touched’ when something moves us deeply; the ‘touché’ that fencers say to concede a touch of their opponent’s foil, and we say it when our opponent in an argument has foiled us with a retort; there is the expression ‘touch and go’, which originated back in the horse and carriage days when the “wheels of two coaches glanced off each other as they passed, but didn’t snag”; and there is the notion of ‘losing touch’.

Ackerman then relates the mesmerising truths about how touch improves the health of premature babies.  Hospitals have volunteers who come it to massage these tiny humans, who in response, “gain weight as much as 50% faster than unmassaged babies.  They’re more active, alert, and responisve, more aware of their surroundings, better able to tolerate noise, and they orient themselves faster and are emotionally more in control.”  The benefits of touch extend to all babies and have long-lasting effects too.  Studies have shown that “babies who were held more became more alert and developed better cognitive abilities years later.”  More disturbing are the separation experiments on primates that show brain damage results from a lack of touch.

There are all sorts of wonders of touch in the animal kingdom, from sponges to tapeworms to coackroaches to turtles.  Turtles can feel their shells being scratched!  More recent epxeriments focus on frogs as predictors of earthquakes, possibly as a result of extra static electircity in the air.  Ackerman herlsef relates observing the launch of a rocket fromCape Canaveraland how the air “felt itchy and electric”.

There are explorations of the history of tattoos, pain, kissing.  We learn that the ‘x’ we put at the end of a letter (or email!) that represents a kiss arose from the days when people were illiterate and marked their signature with an ‘x’, which “stood for ‘St Andrew’s mark’, and people vowed to be honest in his sacred name.  To pledge their sincerity, they would kiss their signature.”  In time this became shorthand for a kiss.

Finally, Ackerman delves into the astonishing results of studies on touch that show the importance of subliminal touch.  Waitresses who “lightly and unobtrusively touch diners on the hand or shoulder … consistently tip the waitress higher.  Other studies show increased honesty when people receive subliminal touches.

So, if you didn’t believe in the power of touch beforehand, now you ought to!  Go and give yoru nearest and dearest a hug today … (or touch them without them noticing and watch the tips flow!)

And that’s just the touch chapter!  All the others are equally captivating.

Ok, so it shows its age in a few places, and there may well be more up-to-date alternatives I’m not aware of.  Much has been discovered about brain plasticity in recent years, for instance.  But of course the history of how we came to understand and appreciate (and underappreciate) our senses hasn’t changed.

As for the scent of violets, there’s a reason it’s so beguiling: it has a chemical in it that interferes with our ability to smell.  It is like the tide: we smell its wonderful aroma until it switches our nose off, then, after a time, our nose switches back on and we smell it again.  Violets thus seem to pulse with scent.  No wonder it was so prized by the ancients as a perfume!

An interesting, informative, and entertaining read.

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

1990

Vintage

309 pages

ISBN: 9780679735663

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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