Book review: Losing Touch

Losing Touch – a Man without his body. Jonathan Cole, 2016, Oxford University Press


This book is about understanding the experience of living with the loss of touch – cutaneous touch and movement/position sense (proprioception).

‘Touch Ian, stroke him, or put a heavy weight in his hand and he cannot feel it. For all the world he has no sense of light touch; nothing in daily living is felt on the skin unless it is hot, cold, itchy, or painful. ‘(p.111)

 It draws on the lived experiences of Ian Waterman who lost these senses suddenly at the age of 19, bringing together Ian’s reflections and those of the author’s scientific experiments with Ian, alongside medical explanations and understandings.

Ian’s initial terrifying experience of loss of touch from below the neck is described in the first chapter of the book. A key feature of which was the varied medical reaction to his unexplainable condition, with no clear diagnosis or treatment. It was a decade later that Ian’s condition was first named as ‘acute sensory neuronpathy’. During his hospitalization through intensive physiotherapy over a year and a half, and becoming aware of the physics of movement, Ian eventually learnt to walk unaided and after a similar length of time was able to live independently. However this is not a book about ‘recovery’: Ian does not recover his sense of touch rather he finds ways to live without it.

Twelve years after Ian’s loss of touch he met Jonathan Cole who was starting out on his medical career. The starting point of their journey over more than 40 years was a series of neurophysiological tests to stimulate and record Ian’s nerves to better understand his condition and the extent of sensory nerve function. The experiments conducted with and on Ian conducted by Jonathan and a variety of other scientists around the world are described in some detail, as is Ian’s experiences and commentary on them. The book is a telling narrative, notably on the limitations and expectations of scientific understanding, and the relationship between lab and the everyday experiences.

The book offers the reader a first-person approach to the experience of living without touch. It connects neuroscience with the work of social scientists, phenomenologists, and gesture studies as well as the arts – Ian’s experiences have been ‘translated’ into theatre and dance:

 ‘A fusion of narrative and neuroscience, of the personal and the physiological, to understand touch and proprioception and its loss’ (p. 14)

 Chapter 5 reports Ian’s encounter with the theatre director Peter Brook. It discusses how Brook’s dramaturgical approach to Ian’s movement and pose or his bodily ‘performance’ moved beyond the technical aspects of his movement that were of interest to science to explore how he looked when he moved. This approach served to break down Ian’s embodied performance as a route to understanding his ‘self-image’ and his internal feelings or way of being. This experience also seems to have given Ian a vocabulary for talking about his own learned movements as being choreographed and sequenced.

The book’s interdisciplinary stance to touch speaks to the concerns of the IN-TOUCH project. In addition to the book’s exploration of Ian’s loss of touch and sensation were through scientific experimentation and the arts, chapter 6 discusses the potential of robotics for providing insight on Ian’s experience. During a trip to NASA Ian and others engaged with a mock up of a Space Station that housed a large robot. The use of the robot led a colleague to explain ‘ how he could see the robot arm and move it, but had no sense of touch, and how curious that was’. But as Cole notes, the colleague could ‘move and see the robot while also feeling his own arms and hands’ a rather different experience than Ian’s, nonetheless the ultimate shared experience was one of becoming embodied and entwined in the robot.

Some of the question’s raised in the book connect with those raised by the ways in which digitally mediated touch might reshape communication, including:

  • How might the digital reconfigure the limits to touch and movement with no feedback?
  • Will the digital re-mediate the boundary between touch and the embodied self?
  • How does temperature become heightened as a resource and newly embedded in experience when proprioception is absent? (In the book, Ian used temperature as a way of understanding the spatial environment and to achieve actions that usually rely on proprioception).
  • How does touch interact with the visual? How does augmented and virtual reality shift those interactions? what might that mean for communication and meaning making? (In the book, Ian talks of having a visual map ‘in his head’ which enabled him to move his hand accurately in different positions and that being able to visualize a movement enabled the movement)
  • What does it mean to touch an object digitally (e.g. moving an object with a robotic arm) but have no sense of what it feels like? Is that touch?

This book while focused on the loss of touch provides useful ground on which to think about how the digital may re-mediate touch through the design of sensory digital communication devices.

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