"Human Touch" is Necessary

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Two hundred years ago, a creature, looking somewhat human, was sighted running through the forests of Southern France.  Out of curiosity, hunters brought it to Paris for further examination.  Parisian   scientists determined that it was indeed a human child of about eleven years of age who had lived alone in the wild for the last six years.   They named him, "Victor."  Victor ran, ate, drank, slept, and defecated much like an animal.  He had no understanding of spoken speech and his own speech consisted of grunts and growls.  Phillipe Pinel, the father of psychiatry, observed Victor and concluded that he was an incurable idiot.  Pinel was wrong.  A young physician by the name of Itard was much more on target.  According to Itard, the boy was no idiot, he was simply deprived of human contact and therefore had no opportunity to learn behaviors and skills that we take for granted in a child.  

 Itard brought Victor home and spent five years laboring hard to teach him speaking, reading and writing.  Victor learned to read, write, and understand simple words.  However, in spite of living in the company of other human beings for 29 years after his capture, he never learned to socialize with others.  Victor never made meaningful eye-contact with people and rarely paid attention when they talked to him.  He related to others as if they were mere suppliers of his basic wants and needs.  He never formed significant attachment with anyone.  How unusual!   Under normal circumstances, that is, if caring and loving adults are raising a baby, the baby comes to form strong attachment with the caregivers by the age of six to nine months.  

 Victor's story demonstrated to the world that genetic endowment and fulfillment of physical needs is not enough for a child to fully develop as a human being.  Without human contact in the early formative years, Victor's physical, social, and emotional development was stunted for ever.  Human contact is what makes us the human beings we are and sets us apart from other animals.   By living in a  human environment, we learn a highly developed and complex language, culture, thinking, and feelings.   Presence of a stable, constant, and devoted caregiver is necessary in order for a child to develop love.  Love can only develop if a child has formed a strong and unmistakable attachment to another human being, to his or her parent/s.  This is what is called "infant-mother bonding."  When a mother and a child are bonded, the child prefers the mother over all other human beings, constantly seeks contact with her, experiences significant joy in her company, and distress when even momentarily separated from her.

 While the first two to three years are most important, it is the first few months of life which are  critical for infant-mother bonding.  There are physiological mechanisms in the first few moths after birth that strengthen infant-mother bonding.  Some research suggests that Oxytocin, a hormone present in breast milk, helps in the formation of mother-infant bonding.  Milk is just one element.  The whole process of feeding, loving touch, gazing at the face, the eye-contact, voice, the smell of the mother's body and clothes, and many other elements of this physical closeness and touch help to strengthen the bonding.   

     In the absence of bonding and healthy attachment with an adult, a child may develop life-long emotional disturbances, becoming withdrawn, disinterested,  depressed, cold, hateful, or angry for ever.  A child who is emotionally neglected in the first few years may suffer pronounced physical consequences such as, being physically small, underweight, sickly, and undernourished.  Such a child may survive but not thrive.   Psychology has long identified the "failure to thrive syndrome."  A child who is deprived of this most fundamental relationship, that is, the contact with a stable loving caregiver, can hardly thrive.  

 Interestingly, the word "thrive" is derived from the Old Norse word, thrifask. which literally means, "to have oneself in grasp" or "grasp something for oneself."  Here is my spin on this word in the context of mother-infant bonding.  The baby and mother must be in grasp of each other in order for a child to thrive and to succeed.  How important is touch for us as a society?  Just count the number of times you use the word, "contact."  Contact literally means "touch."  Also, notice how many times you use the expression, "stay in touch," or "I will get in touch with you."  This is an uncanny insight on part of our culture to see the connection between thriving and touch.                  

 All this talk about mother-infant bonding does not imply that fathers don't play a crucial role in a child's development.  They do.  Babies from very early age recognize and experience joy in presence of a stable, loving, caring male.  In human beings, and many species of birds and mammals, both parents care for their offsprings.  Bi-parental care appears to be better suited for survival.  To provide bi-parental care, there has to be a strong, stable, and loving "pair bonding"  between a male and a female. 

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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