Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Brief History of the Hug

 Around the globe, there are many complex words and phrases to describe

the act of hugging. The English language uses words like embrace, squeeze, cuddle,

snuggle, love, xoxo. In Punjabi, two friends meet and jhappi, casually embrace. In

Hindi one may pyaar karna, affectionately and lovingly embrace, or paas rakhna,

hug, or aalingan, cuddle. In Italian, requesting a hug slides (find a better word)

musically together into abbracciami. Despite the many ways of describing physical

affection, or perhaps in an effort to better capture the act of hugging, the hug still

eludes our understanding; but not for a lack of trying.

In an attempt to understand the nature of physical affection and love, or as

psychologists of the 20th century called it, attachment, Harry F. Harlow and a group

of rhesus monkeys set out on an experiment in 1958. What he discovered was

ground breaking: baby monkeys like touch. Even more importantly, their desire

for touch and comfort contact is greater than their desire for food. Today, this

might not seem exciting or even innovative, but at the time, it contradicted what

science figured was a universal truth: being provided for with physical needs was

more important than providing for emotional needs. In order to prove this, Harlow

created two “monkey mothers.” One, made of wire mesh, fed the baby. The other, a

soft-terrycloth mother provided comfort and warmth. The babies overwhelmingly

preferred the soft mother. They spent the majority of their time with her. They

cuddled with her, they explored their environment more when she was around and

ran to her when they were afraid. They wanted little to do with the cold hearted

wire mother, even though she provided them with food. The explanation was

simple: touch is important.

We as humans are hardwired to the importance of touch. There are more

than 3,000 receptors for touch in each fingertip alone. When someone pats us on

the back or gives us a hug, the reactions throughout our body are amazing. Trust

promoting chemicals flood the body. Stress related parts of the brain slow down.

Parts of the brain involved with connection light up. Our immune system receives a

boost. Studies show warm touch encourages premature babies to grow and gain

weight and reduces the risk of depression in older patients suffering with

Alzheimer’s disease. A little touch goes a long way.

Like Mr. Harlow, my grandfather is a doctor. Or, more specifically, he has a

PhD. Educated at Harvard and Yale, he has an IQ well above that of a “normal”

person or even a “smart” person. Despite all this knowledge, he didn’t know

about Harlow and his monkeys or the 3,000 receptors in his fingertips. If he did,

perhaps he didn’t care. More interested in controlling his family’s viewing habits

by padlocking the TV set in the living room, my grandfather wasn’t someone a

small child could call Daddy. My dad once asked his mother if he could trade dads

with the neighbor boys because, “Mr. Anderson next door is nicer and more fun.” My

grandfather never addressed my dad with affection. Never once said “I love you.”

My grandmother tried to make up for this, doing everything she could physically do

for my dad, but something was missing, despite her best efforts.

Determined to never be like his father, my dad tried to make up for this lack

of affection when he started his own family. Rotten to the core, I, at two, deterred

his best efforts by screaming, “He’s looking at me! He’s looking at me!” during

dinner. My mom, ever the emotional pragmatist, retorted with, “He’s your dad. He

can look at you.” I moved past my rotten phase but my family never exactly moved

into a hugging one. Every night before I went to sleep as a little girl, my dad would

hug me and repeat the same story to me: Once upon a time in a far away land…there

lived a beautiful princess with long brown… Hair. That was my part. And beautiful

blue… Eyes. And a button of a ….Nose. Only now do I learn that this story ended in

me marrying a handsome prince in a beautiful Temple. It’s important to have a goal.

Never missing one of my piano recitals, attending my sister’s yearly dance

recital, patiently teaching me how to ruin his car and reading all of my stories, my

dad makes an effort to make sure we all feel loved. Though my dad tells us he loves

us before bed and as I leave for work each day, my 14 year old, popular sister yells,

“love you,” but we rarely hug. As I left each fall to go back to college or my parents

leave to go on vacation, we always embrace. But, it’s a goodbye. A Make Good

Choices! We’ll Miss You. Or a Have Fun in Greece! Don’t Die on RyanAir!

When I first mention I don’t come from a hugging family, it confuses my

boyfriend. From our first meeting, we never had a problem with affection. We

first met in Italy. Hoping to experience something new, I packed up for a summer

in Italy. I tried to convince myself that the only men I was interested in meeting

were Titian, Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Embracing is Italian heritage; Jared

also packed up for a summer in Italy. I crossed the cool foyer on the bottom floor

of our University’s villa. Pausing outside my friend Tyler’s door, I framed myself,

though I’m no Botticelli, more of a Fragonard or an AC Cobra. But, I must have made

an impression. Steven came to the door. Lifting my brows, my eyes flit across the

room to the boy at the desk.

Months later, we snuck out the solid door, hoping to avoid the furtive looks

of our classmates. The black button down shirt seen only at the first banquet

dinner, the black high heels pulled out for more than Going-Out-with-the-Girls. Our

classmates bang though the door. “You guys are going out? It's about time.” So

much for not being noticed.

We wandered the cobblestone streets together, getting lost. We bump into

more students, who, after relating their exploits throughout the city, admonish us to

get drunk and have great sex. Laughing, we gracefully excused ourselves; we’re

getting a little hungry, thanks. Michael had the address, double-checked it even and

assured me dinner was “Just past the train station.” The train station got farther

and father away, faded into gray, brown and green chiaroscuro. I tilted my head,

teasing, pushed on his arm, grabbing at him when I felt a little unsteady.

Cobblestones in high heels are hard, even sober.

He helped me climb over the edge of the bridge to sit on the stone buttress,

jutting out into the smooth river. The lights from the shops glowed, shimmered into

golden pools on the water; the moss-covered stone cold beneath our feet. The night

got later and later. The sounds of students drinking, bottles clanking – andiamo! –

mixed with pinpricks of stars. We sat laughing, sliding closer to each other to avoid

the cold. Michael pulled me in closer, wrapping me up in his shirt to stay warm

abbracciami!. We broke off pieces of the buttresses and scratched our names into

the hard stone. Carving out something new. Something different. Pietra Serena.

Almost a year later, baking in the hot Florida sunshine, Michael and I are

dressed in our best outfits. Separating to dress and meet our guests, we now stand

in between rows of chairs after being draped with well wishes and heavy flower leis

from each of our families. He spent hours that morning wrestling with an iron

trying to smooth the wrinkles from his blue and white shirt and slacks. Ever

attempting to stay lady-like, I’m dressed in a little black dress, pearls and heels.

“Meet after the ceremony, behind the bleachers,” Michael says. “I’ll call you.” Covered

in identical, swishing black robes and too small hats, we take our seats in our rows

and are herded to graduate, sheep, though we are told we are individuals. Special.

Unique. Michael and I are nervous. Our families are meeting for the first time after

Logical, and graduating in Biological Psychology, Michael has heard of

Harlow and his monkeys. He knows the somatosensory system, which picks up

the sensations of the body and its movement, includes many touch receptors

including those for pressure, cold, warmth and pain. He knows, and can accurately

pronounce, the names of the chemicals that brain releases with a pat on the back, a

hug…a kiss. Later, the lack of hugs continues to confuse him.

After many phone calls, we reunite, families in tow. Michael’s family is

beaming, so proud of the family’s first college graduate. Hugs all around. Pictures.

Chaos. Our parents meet, exchange greetings. They seem to like each other.

Nick and Karen congratulate me, smiling. John outstretches his hands to me,

“congratulations!” I lean in and shake his hand. “Thank you.”

“Why didn’t you hug him?”Michael asks. “He asked me if you don’t like him.”

I’m crushed. “I just…you know. My family isn’t huggy.” I shrug like it isn’t a big

deal. My family has agreed, we just aren’t that kind. “I thought he didn’t want to

hug me?” I question. “Babe,” Michael replies. “You know my family.”

Like my grandfather, Michael’s grandfather wasn’t a model of fatherly affection

either. He wasn’t the most present of fathers. Michael’s dad is not like this. Like my

dad, he has made an effort to be present in his children’s lives, making sure they feel

loved. Wanted. Needed. But his family hugs. Michael’s dad has hugged me many

times. The first time I met him, I hopped off a plane fresh from Italy. Never having

met the family, not knowing a thing about me, they welcomed me and embraced me.

It becomes a running joke, my inability to hug. Why my personal space is

bigger and louder than all the Cristoforous' combined. I see Nick a few months later as I

visit Michael’s family. I jump out of the truck. Hug Nick. The family laughs. I know

Michael has repeated the conversation we had to Nick and Nick knows Michael has

repeated his conversation to me. So, we hug and they laugh and it’s nice to have a

family who expects me to hug them – no strings attached. Though it will take some

getting used to.

- Emily

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