The Non-Verbals of Welcome: Part 1, Contact Comfort and Healing

After posting about the Free Hugs Campaign, I thought I'd devote a couple of posts to the non-verbals of welcome.

As I've written about before, I find the constellation of ideas surrounding welcome, embrace, and hospitality to be central to living humanely (which I equate with living Christianly).

The are many facets to welcome. In these posts I want to dwell on how, in passing encounters, I can signal welcome with my non-verbal behaviors. The idea here is to pay attention to how I send signals to others that might subtly enhance or diminish the dignity of the people I encounter.

In Part 2 the first non-verbal I want to consider is touch. But first, in this post, I want to offer an apology for touch and for a general consideration of the non-verbals of welcome.

I want to do this by telling the story of Harry Harlow and his surrogate mother studies, some of the most famous work in the history of psychology. But to fully understand the impact of Harlow's work we'll need to back up and describe the impact of behaviorism upon American parenting.

In the first half of the 20th Century Europe was being dominated by Freud's psychoanalysis. But in America the psychological scene was dominated by behaviorism, led by the work and advocacy of psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and John Watson. Behaviorism was dominated by the ideas of association and contingent rewards and punishment. According to behaviorism, animals, humans included, were born as blank slates, indifferent learning machines that acquired behavioral repertoires through associations ("If I touch a hot oven my finger hurts.") and contingent outcomes to behaviors, such as rewards and punishment.

Now this whole school of thought placed enormous burdens upon parents. If the parent was adept at structuring the associative and reward/punishment milieu of the child's life then the child would turn out well. If the the parent was inattentive or botched this job then the child would come out wrong. Sadly, this behavioral model of parenting received support from the biblical injunction "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." Parenting was destiny.

If this weren't bad enough behaviorism also undermined the very notion of parental love and affection. It did this in two ways. First, according to the behaviorists if a child was hurt, crying or distressed the parent was not to hold or soothe the child. The behavioral logic here seemed impeccable: If you pick up and comfort a child when he is crying then you, unwittingly, reinforce the crying. Comforting a child was believed to weaken or undermine the character of the child. In the language of the time you would be "spoiling" the child.

The second way behaviorists undermined the parent/child bond was by offering a reinforcement model for the maternal attachment bond. Specifically, why do children attach/bond with their mothers? Behaviorists, given their theory, looked for an explanation in associations and rewards. Given that mothers were the source of breast milk the argument went that children bonded with mothers because mothers were associated with food.

The sum total effect of behaviorism upon American parenting was to create a kind of scientifically sanctioned distance between parents and children. Parenting manuals prior to the 1960s strongly encouraged American parents to not hold or coddle their children, especially when the child was distressed. Children needed to be trained to be autonomous and independent. But what about the desire of the child to be held by the mother? The child sure seems to be expressing a need to be held. Well, it was argued, this wasn't a big deal, the need for a hug was simply a food association acquired during infancy. Nothing really emotional or affectionate to it. This situation got so weird, B.F. Skinner, the leading American behaviorist, developed his infamous air crib to raise children in:

Skinner presented his air crib to American parents in October 1945 in the magazine The Ladies Home Journal in an article entitled "Baby in a Box." Pictured above is Skinner's own daughter, Deborah, who was raised in the box. Happily, in her autobiographical essay, "I Was Not a Lab Rat", she reports suffering no long term psychological damage.

Into this world of "spoiling" and "babies in a box" stepped Harry Harlow. It could be argued that Harry Harlow single handedly brought down the influence of behaviorism in America. Harlow's work certainly changed American parenting. Nowadays most American parents have no hesitation to pick up their distressed child. You can credit all that parental hugging, holding, and cuddling to Harry Harlow.

Here was the the basic design of Harlow's famous study. It involved infant monkeys separated from their mothers. These infant monkeys were released into an area where there were two artificial "surrogate" mothers. One "mother" was made of wire but had a nipple where the baby monkey could get milk. The other "mother" was made of soft cloth and had a heating coil. It was warm and cuddly. The research question was this: Which mother would the infant attach to?

As noted above, behavioral theory had a clear prediction: The infant would attach to the wire mother that provided food. But an unexpected thing happened. The baby attached to the warm, soft mother. Why? What could be more important than food?

Harlow coined the term contact comfort to describe his findings. That is, primates and other animals appear to have an innate need for comforting physical touch. It is this need for contact comfort that drives our most intimate attachments and sits at the heart of affection, love and care-taking. In short, at its most primal core love is physical contact and warmth.

Here is some old footage of Harlow and his research:

Harlow eventually became the president of the American Psychological Association and, in front of a convention filled with behaviorists, delivered his famous President's address The Nature of Love, a speech that fundamentally changed psychology. Love was back. Doctors and pediatricians took notice and parenting manuals began to reflect the new scientific consensus: Touch matters. Suddenly, the work of writers such as Dr. Spock, once considered out of the mainstream, was now backed by cutting edge science. Mothers were now told to trust their instincts and to act upon the natural impulse to hug and hold their children. Cuddling was back with a vengeance. And, sad to say for Skinner's entrepreneurial efforts, air cribs never caught on.

In my next post I want to talk about touch. In this post I simply wanted to tell the story of how psychologists came to recognize how touch is central to the psychology of affection, love, and intimacy. We have an innate need to be touched. It is the most direct and emotional means to signal connection, acceptance, and solidarity. I'm reminded of this when I read this story in the bible from Matthew 8:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.

I'm always struck by the sequence: Touch then healing. Touch came first. And I always imagine Jesus holding this touch for a time in silence. Because that touch occurs while the man is still unclean. The sequence isn't healing followed by touch. That sequence would signal something completely different, that I won't touch you until you are acceptable and "cleaned up." So as I imagine Jesus holding this touch I can sense that something deep inside the man is being healed irrespective of his leprosy. Something deep, emotional and human is being reached and mended prior to any mere physical healing. The true healing, as I see it, comes with the primacy of the touch. It heals the social dislocation and social alienation associated with leprosy in that time and place, by far the most painful and dehumanizing symptom of the disease.

In short, touch heals. It is the most primal act of love at our disposal.

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5 thoughts on “The Non-Verbals of Welcome: Part 1, Contact Comfort and Healing”

  1. "Behaviorism was dominated by the ideas of association and contingent rewards and punishment."

    I remember, just barely, the fifties when this idea was ascendant. I wonder if there is a connection between this reward and punishment motif and the reduction of economics to a dog-eat-dog competition. We are rugged, isolated individuals and will be rewarded or punished as we deserve according solely to our choices.

  2. Totally agree with what you have written Richard. On a therapeutic level, appropriate touch is often a powerful analgesic and anxiolytic agent. As an aside, biblical leprosy is often mistakenly thought to be Hansen's disease. The actual interpretation relates to conditions more akin to psoriasis

  3. Apologies - feel I must expand on my last comment. The wonderful thing about Jesus (as a healer) is not his falsely percieved utilization of magical powers which detract from his humanity/divinity - rather his loving focus on the emotional components which exacerbated underlying physical/psychological and pyschiatric pathologies afflicting those who sought his healing touch. That was outrageous enough for his cultural and historical setting and is miraculous enough for me.

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