Friday, February 27, 2009


Now, even though it has been over three weeks since my last entry, some of you might remember that I was talking about media and communication. Throughout that entry I was holding to the ideal that there is no substitute for direct, physical human interaction. In this age of widespread 'enlightenment', we pride ourselves on knowing better than to consider ourselves purely physical beings. We have learned to pay lots of attention to our thoughts and emotions because we have discovered the important roles they play in life. I don't know if this is really a new thing, I have only been around for about 23 years myself, but I am noticing a tendency to overlook the importance of our physicality whether it be in communication, relationships, religion etc. Health issues aside (but certainly to be addressed in a later entry), we need to start giving our physical nature more credit. To that end, I will share a little thought I had this week.

I was listening to public radio and an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago was talking about her book Einstein's Telescope, about how the gravitational pull of dark matter creates curves in space-time that act as lenses to magnify objects much further away than we used to be able to look. Interesting stuff, but to jump to the relevant portion, she mentioned how we can see stars that are 14 billion lightyears away from earth. That means when we look at these stars, we are seeing them as they were 14 billion years ago. That is very interesting to scientists because that is around the time the universe seems to have started expanding, give or take a billion years maybe. As much as there is to be learned from such sights, and as cool as it is to look back in time, they are so old I can't help but feel like they are a little irrelevant. If we want to know anything about what those stars are doing right now, we will have to wait a long time. But by then, it will have become very old news once again.

This sense of disappointment, like we can't see the real star as it actually is right now, applies to other things as well. Our own sun for example. We always see it as it was about 8 minutes ago, never how it actually is right now. And when light is used to transmit data through fiberoptic cables or between satellites, well, we all know how awkward it is when someone being interviewed in Iraq pauses for 5 seconds before answering Matt Lauer's questions. Even over much shorter distances, like when you see your own little image in the corner of a videochat screen, there is very visible delay. And if you haven't ever thought of this before, the images you see of yourself in real mirrors even have a delay so slight you could never perceive it. Not only mirrors, but light and sound from the person across the table from you. We may be three feet from each other, but I am still interacting with a person who existed some fraction of a nanosecond ago. All this made me think that the closest I will ever come to interacting with someone completely in the present is to be physically touching them. Nerve signaling and brain function speeds may be circumvented someday, but until then physical contact is the most effective way to engage with someone in the present moment.

Physical contact is relatively rare in daily life and has a lot of mystique about it. What is more personal and private than touch? What is more comforting in the right context? Few things can send a louder message than how you touch someone. Or how you don't touch them.

So hug someone you care about today. And maybe kiss them too.

1 comment:

  1. From my limited experience in health care (well...five years now), touch can have a profound influence on a human being's outcomes. Touch can sometimes do more than drugs or physical restraints to calm agitated or confused patients. I think rather than flooding the brain and muscles with semi-synthetic chemicals (which sometimes actually increase agitation instead of sedating) touch brings us back to our most basic level - our physical relation to the world, to our mothers, to friends.

    Don't get me wrong, touch can agitate too. But where medicine often fails to reach a person, basic human essentials like hand-holding, rubbing of arms and backs, stroking hair, and speaking gently can find someone who is otherwise lost in their mind.