I brought a treasure box with me to campus this semester. It is a vintage metal box a bit larger than a hardcover textbook, and it is filled with a collection of strange, colorful objects which I specifically picked for their distinct textures. When you open the box, you see a small, impressionistic painting of chrysanthemums, a collection of glitter in various shapes, and a plastic mesh bag which once held clementines. Move these aside and you find a dried-up corn cob, a seashell, a bottle cork, a Rubik’s Cube, a spool of thread, and a kazoo. The bottom of the box is littered with random gemstones, coins, buttons, and ribbons hiding underneath the other objects. Sometimes I take out this treasure box when I get stressed, and I pick up each item, touching them, noticing the difference between one texture and another, concentrating on the feeling of each underneath my fingers. This practice of tactile self-care calms me, and allows me to return to my body when I become disconnected from it. In a society which de-emphasizes touch, my small practice of tactile awareness allows me to remain grounded within myself and the physical world around me.
Touch starvation is a well-documented phenomenon, especially in cultures which de-emphasize touch such as the United States and England. Studies have linked touch deprivation to developmental delays in children, increased aggression, and negative mental health impacts such as loneliness, depression, stress, and mood and anxiety disorders. However, fewer studies have looked at the impact of the everyday moments of touch between ourselves and the objects we touch as we move throughout our days. Inanimate touch might have once guided our lives, in childhood or in everyday life. But with the rise of the pandemic and the increasing hegemony of technology, our lives are growing alarmingly less tactile, leading to a sense of deep disconnection between ourselves, our bodies, and our world.
This disconnection is best represented by a disturbing phenomenon which happens to me after I spend a day online. I will be walking down College Row, or sitting in my sole in-person class, or speaking with a friend, and I will realize that I am still perceiving the world like I am on Zoom. My surroundings no longer seem real, and I feel like I am sitting inside my brain, experiencing a series of images and sounds without being present inside them. Although I know that I could reach out and grab the things I’m seeing to verify their reality, a part of me is convinced that the real world is no different than the world I see online. This not only takes me away from my surroundings, but alienates me from my body, as my arms and legs become a vehicle for my consciousness instead of intrinsic parts of my being. Because so many of my days are spent engaging with solely auditory and visual mediums, touch becomes the mythical sense. Thus, I am always surprised when I can reach out and grasp the things that I see.
This sense of alienation is partly defined for me by the technology I spend most of my day using. Our technology is specifically designed to limit tactile input. A phone’s glass screen or a laptop’s smooth keyboard prevent us from noticing that we are touching anything at all, allowing us to enter the world of our screens with little tactile resistance. Richard Kearney, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, describes the process of spending more time online as one of “excarnation,” taking us away from our bodies and further into the portals we use to access the internet. Because the internet is a fundamentally auditory and visual medium, the more time we spend online, the less time we spend touching the world in any meaningful way. It is easy to forget how disconnected we are from touch as we scroll through social media, but the longing is clearly expressed through “satisfying” content such as videos of slime and soap cutting. Even as we become further alienated from touch, our longing for it grows and we try to satisfy these desires for touch through artificial means.
The pandemic has only exacerbated our disconnection from touch. Despite the low risk of surface transmission, safety theater has led us to view the surfaces around us as dangerous possible sources of infection. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, I would keep my hands close to me and constantly sanitize them and wash them. This nervousness has never quite faded, and I find something risky in touching something out in the world. I am placed in limbo, where technology makes me long for touch and the fear of contamination keeps me from accessing it. And so more and more often, I find myself keeping my hands to myself, not touching anything but my screens.
I created the treasure box out of an attempt to ground myself. I found that often, when I felt nervous or stressed or bored, I would take out my phone, open it up, close it again, drag my fingers around my screen, not doing anything except touching it, and I would get sucked into the world it contained. The treasure box provides an alternative for me. When I feel real objects, objects which are not intended to be portals but exist solely as themselves, I find myself connected to the world in radical new ways. A seashell doesn’t collect my information or provide me with constant dopamine shots, but it provides a more subtle type of enjoyment, the enjoyment of sitting within my body, giving it nothing but touch, and letting that be enough. Through a more mindful awareness of touch wherever it comes up, we can ground ourselves in our bodies and the world around us, creating healthier relationships with the world around us as we realize a sense of tactile fulfillment.
Anna Tjeltveit can be reached at email@example.com