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Touch

( Originally Published 1899 )

THE child enters the world furnished with all the instruments necessary for becoming acquainted with it, for protecting itself against it, and for finally becoming its master. Nature kindly anticipated the coming by providing the child with a more or less perfect covering, so that the shock of transition shall not be too great. In spite of this fact, it frequently happens that even a slight change of temperature or the contact with its clothing, though ever so soft, produces great pain. What effect the manner of handling the child in these first few hours or days has upon its future life, the Infinite only knows; but that it has a right to intelligent, sympathetic care, none but a brute denies. Nature still remains its friend, and slowly hardens the epidermal cells, so that soon the extreme sensitiveness is gone and the child rests quietly in its crib. The delicate terminal nerve filaments that at first were easily set on fire are covered a little more fully, and all over the body companion filaments begin to respond in an orderly, pleasurable way to outside pressure.

Through the sensations thus aroused the child soon begins an acquaintance with the external world and succeeds in localizing, or placing, at least in a general way, the objects touching it. What a wonderful thousand-direction sense is this sense of touch! As the babe lies in the cradle, nothing can come in contact with it on back or front, on hand or foot, above or below, right or left, but that the news is instantly carried to the brain. If the object be rough or sharp, irritation results; if it be soft or smooth, gratification.

The sense of touch increases in sensitiveness and delicacy much more rapidly in some parts of the body than in others. If two toothpicks, or pencils, or a pair of dividers be separated slightly at the points and lightly pressed against the cheek of a child, he will probably declare that there is but one point touching him, but if applied to the lips, tip of the tongue, or finger, he will immediately say there are two. If now the distance between the points be increased and applied again to the cheek, he may detect two points, but on being applied to the neck, only one. The thigh is found to possess less power of discrimination than any other part of the body; the fingers and the tongue tip the greatest. This difference in discrimination is due to the difference in the distances between the various nerve endings of the sense of touch. One great peculiarity about them is that they seem to multiply with use. There are also differences in what is called the threshold value of touch—that is, the degree of pressure required to awaken sensation. This also varies in different parts of the body and in different persons.

The offices of this sense in the physical economy are easily seen to be various. It is essential to the protection of all parts of the body against injury, and, like the sense of temperature, is more sensitive in parts that are most susceptible to harm. It immediately reveals the presence of in-sects and vermin of every description; of objects in the way or coming against it, whether sharp or dull, rough or smooth, hard or soft; and of too great pressure or constriction of any part of the clothing. Through association, it indirectly reveals much concerning such objects that is not given by pressure proper. What miserable creatures we should be if compelled to wait for a fly to bite or a mosquito to fill his nib before knowing of his presence. Think of the suffering which would everywhere ensue if we could know nothing of a rough substance until continual rubbing against it had produced rawness or inflammation of the skin. The sense of touch is the special guardian of the eye. Whenever it fails in its duty there, intense suffering may result. It also prevents the ears and mouth and nose from many a sad mishap. Contact with the tongue often reveals the nature of food by association before the sense of taste has been aroused, and, so together with smell, touch assists taste to discriminate among foods and to protect the system against offensive or poisonous substances.

This passive touch is greatly re-enforced and multiplied by the addition of muscular movements and their associated sensations. It is then called active touch, because the voluntary muscles are exercised in bringing any part of the body desired into contact with an .object. As an illustration, the arm may be thrown around a column, the feet run over a ball, the fingers clasped around an ink bottle, the hand slipped rapidly over a book, and in each case the varying pressure, combined with the different muscular sensations, reveals the shape and surface of the object. It is now conceded that the idea of solidity itself, the idea of three dimensions length, breadth, and thickness is derived through active touch. Without it, every object would appear flat and no adequate conception of the positions of objects in space could be attained. This cooperation of the muscles gives the touch a sufficient number of simultaneous or of rapidly successive sensations to enable the mind to deter-mine the shape, size, surface, texture, and hardness of an object. Much skill in discriminating, as with the other senses, develops slowly and develops with practice only. The time comes, however, when the amount of muscular movement required is very slight in any given case and by a process of association and symbolism, to be explained later, the mind instantly recognizes the characteristics named. The distance from one part of an object to another is revealed by the observed amount of muscular effort required to move the hand or part of the hand from one to the other. The distance between objects is determined in the same way, though other muscles may be used and other parts of the body, or the whole body, moved, as in the case of walking or jumping.

Though afterward, by association and symbolism, this special function of touch is largely assumed by sight, the accuracy of sight perception as well as of the information still furnished us by touch, is entirely dependent upon the way in which the sense of touch is educated in the child. This sense is sometimes defective or belated, and what is often ascribed to the dullness of the child's intellect or to inattention and indifference is found upon investigation to be due to one of the causes named. The test can easily be made by placing in the child's hand a variety of forms, surfaces, and textures for him to compare. Ile should not be tested on his ability to designate by the proper terms, for that tests his memory and not his physical sense, but upon his ability to pick out two or more things of similar shape, surface, or texture; in a similar way, by touch only, also to tell relative sizes of objects. If he be found lacking, the divider and pressure tests may also be used. It is highly probable that few cases will be found where daily exercises in discriminating by touch will not in a reasonable time show surprisingly happy results. Mere guesses should not be allowed. Accuracy, then rapidity, must be the constant aim. If, after a few weeks, no appreciable progress is discoverable, a physician should make an examination and advise upon the course to be pursued. The cause may not lie in the peripheral nor in the afferent nerves, but in the brain, and the sooner known the better. Possibly methods of educating the sense have been wrong; possibly general nervous derangement frustrates the efforts; possibly in some way the child's mind has not yet learned how to treat the sensations that are constantly pouring into his little soul, and some gentle means must be used to make that connection between mind and body which, in some way, failed at the critical moment when Nature intended it should be made.

The intellectual value of touch, the power to give us knowledge of the external world, is seldom placed high enough. Without the sense of touch the child would not only see things flat, but the myriad forms that fill the earth and sky would never be known to him. All of them would be alike to him neither rough nor smooth, fine nor coarse, sharp nor blunt, round nor square, far nor near, in high nor low relief. In fact, he would have no idea in the concrete or in the abstract of any such qualities. He would, in manhood, be tumbling downstairs, over chairs, into the fireplace, into the washtub, and everywhere else, just as he does in childhood before this sense has taught him the relief and relations of objects. Without it he would know neither sea nor land, wood nor mineral. If man were deprived of the sense of touch, every loom, every ship, every railway car, every industry in which man is engaged, would instantly stop. All these are dependent upon its high cultivation for their successful conduct. No matter for what occupation a child is intended, the education of this sense is of vital importance. Whether he becomes a blacksmith or a farmer, he will discover not only its everyday use, but its value in buying his food and clothing and the furnishings for his house. In selling his wool or buying sheep, the woolgrower will find his profits largely in his skill in detecting the value of both by feeling. The sense of touch discovers many defects which escape the best of eyes. If he becomes a weaver, a watchmaker, a dealer in fine fabrics, a surgeon, an oculist, a dentist, a musician, an artist, a bank cashier, the possession of delicate and finely discriminating touch is absolutely essential. It must ever be remembered that child-hood is the only time when the resources of this sense can be profitably developed. Fair efficiency may be secured by beginning later in life, but rare power is seldom attained. Some children inherit great delicacy of touch, but whatever Nature sup-plies them may be multiplied many fold by intelligent cultivation.

The extent to which touch is cultivated in some of the schools for defectives is shown in the skill with "which the blind and deaf read raised letters in English and German. Superintendent Hammond states that Helen Kellar gets the thought of a friend by placing her fingers on his lips and her thumb on his throat as he speaks ! At the World's Fair she visited the art gallery, and after passing her hand over the head and face of several pieces of statuary, said of one, "This face feels sad." It was the statue of Melancholy! She seems to have " brain cells in her finger tips."

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