Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: Touch

Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
David J. Linden

Some books have it. Some books don't. Touch is among those that don't.

The "it" in question is the ability to take a big heaping pile of facts and make a connected structure out of them. Touch gets as far as coherent chapter topics, and each chapter begins with a nice clear introduction to the subject. Beyond that, it gets muddled. Every chapter is divided into sections, and the sections don't always connect up. Here, for example, are the first lines of the sections in the chapter on "Pain and Emotion":

  • On his fourteenth birthday, eager to perform an especially daring trick to impress his friends, a boy jumped off the roof of his family's house in Lahore, Pakistan.
  • It usually starts soon after birth, often with the first bowel movement.
  • Imagine that you're walking around the house without shoes and you slam your toes into a heavy wooden chair leg.
  • There is no single brain area for registering pain.
  • When I was a child, sunburn seemed like sympathetic magic.
  • Francis McGlone, a well-known researcher on tactile perception, is fond of asking, "Why is it that there is chronic pain but no chronic pleasure?"
  • On April 13, 2003, Private Dwayne Turner, a U.S. Army combat medic, was with a small unit that came under attack as they were unloading supplies in a makeshift operations center about thirty miles south of Baghdad.
  • When patients are given a sugar pill or some other placebo and told that it will relieve pain, many will indeed experience a degree of pain relief.
  • Torturers are all too aware of the cognitive and emotional  modulation of pain perception, which they exploit in horrifically dehumanizing ways to heighten pain and fear and leave their victims leaving powerless.
  • Pain and negative emotion are deeply intertwined.
That semi-random grab-bag of sentences is pretty representative of how the chapter reads.

On the other hand, the sentences are pretty intriguing, aren't they? That's Touch's strong point. Did you know that there are four different types of touch-sensing skin cells? Or that there are fast and slow neuron channels? Or that scientists have identified separate genes for sensing when it's too hot vs. too cold? Or that it's possible for someone with a severe itch to scratch ... never mind, that one's disturbing. It's all really interesting, though.

Touch is a good read, in other words. You could read it off and on in sections and be not much the worse. You'll pick up some real conversation-stoppers for your next dinner party (that should tell you what my dinner-party skills are like). You might even learn something. If you find yourself regretting that Daniel J. Linden didn't get the full attention of a top-notch editor, well, blame the state of publishing today.

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