The universal language of touch

There was a documentary about bears and bear research on the BBC last weekend. It was called “Bearwalker of the Northwoods”, and it followed Lynn Rogers, an American bear researcher, on his daily work to study and better understand the black bears of the American back country.

Rogers, who is now 81 and is still the principal biologist of the Wildlife Research Institute, has been learning about and learning from the wildlife of Minnesota, and especially bears, for more than half a century.

During the documentary, he gets up close with bears, and runs some educational programs where he helps others do the same, to demonstrate that black bears may not be the two-dimensional villains they’re often made out to be.

“It isn’t that they like me,” he says at one point, “it’s that they trust me.”

In another scene, he is so close to a black bear that he reaches out and caresses him with the back of his hand, and he says,

Touch is a universal language. We get data from touch that we cannot get by any other means.

These words shone out like a beacon. I heard them during the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-July 2020, and more than a decade after “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” was originally filmed and screened.

At this time, touch has become something dangerous. Social distancing has become the norm of every day. We are warned about the dangers of touching our faces. We are tentative about hugging our loved ones.

And yet, touch is one of the five senses that make us what we are. It is a universal language that allows us to gather information from the earth, and allow the earth to gather information from us.

As we move into a more digitised world, where information transmits globally in seconds, where many people read ebooks or listen to audiobooks or carry all the information they need in their smartphones and tablets, touch is a sense that has already been marginalised.

Covid-19 has marginalised it still further.

But touch is essential and universal, and a life without the experience of touch is in many ways lesser, substandard, incomplete.