Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Most Important Sense

Answer quickly now: What’s the most important sense? Sight? Many of you probably said so.

I have to disagree. Our sense of touch, which we take for granted, is by far the most important.

Yes, the loss of sight or hearing can be very traumatic and even fatal. But the loss of the sense of touch can be even more harmful. Imagine being unable to feel pain as your hand encounters a burning stove. Imagine falling down the stairs and not knowing you’ve broken your leg or hip. Imagine, as a baby, not knowing to close your eyes when you’re flailing about in your crib and as a result you poke yourself in the eye and blind yourself.

Or imagine being emotionally wounded and seeking the comfort of a loved one’s arms, but never being able to satisfy that urge. Imagine never feeling a kiss.

Touch is vitally important.

Without touch, we cannot fully engage our world. A number of studies have shown that infants who are severely touch-deprived (for example, in an orphanage that is understaffed) suffer developmental problems, which can include obesity, an impaired immune system, heart disease, diabetes, psychosis and poor impulse control, among other maladies.

Conversely, babies receiving touch therapy have fewer infections, better sleep, gain weight more quickly and do better with motor coordination and cognitive skills. Even babies who have been touch-deprived benefit greatly when obtaining touch therapy afterwards.

The social rewards of touch greatly outweigh the social rewards of vision or any of the other senses. Touch transforms how we interact with the world far more substantially than the other senses – both for good and ill.

Consider, for example, a number of documented cases of people who cannot feel pain. Many of us would say they are lucky, but that turns out not to be the case. Pain is a signal to the body that some sort of damage has occurred. If we aren’t aware of the damage because we don’t feel pain, we could be seriously injured or even die.

Or consider people who are afflicted with extreme itching. What kind of torture must it be to endure that all the time? The loss of sight would be a blessing if it would remove that kind of torment.

So, if your sense of touch is relatively normal, be grateful. Things could be much worse.

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