Touch me

Just prior to walking into an IdeaFestival meeting late last week, my wife called and told me that a Black Angus cow she had bottle-raised had died early in the morning while giving birth to twins. She described one shivering calf, still wet with afterbirth, lying in the front field with her head curled around and stuffed between two sets of legs, the newborn fetal position. She said a second calf, halfway out of the birth canal, had, sadly, died along with her mother.

She knew the routine. The calf would need "first milk," or colostrum, a protein-rich concoction that jump starts the newborn's bacterial and disease defenses and is always the first meal. After hanging up, she walked out to pick up the survivor and carried her to a heated area in our barn where she would be warm. She called on a friend who owns a small dairy for the colostrum.

By now, an emerging science tells us that touch is indispensable to our emotional and physical well-being, that it is fundamental to human communication, bonding and health. Therapeutic massage has a growing body of evidence to support its practice. If you've ever raised a puppy you understand how we own, and are owned, by dogs. Surely part of that uncanny bond is the result of a lifetime of touch.

By coincidence, the following information appeared the next day in the torrent of rss feeds I consume: "Brain basis for why petting feels so good." Here's some of what we've recently discovered about the physiology of touch:

After pinpointing the MRGPRB4+ neurons’ physical stimulus, the researchers then found a chemical that could elicit the same response. When mice were injected with the chemical, the MRGPRB4+ neurons lit up, just as if the mouse was being stroked. The unique neurons were linked specifically to the hair follicles in the mice’s skin, and the nerve-endings were very spread out. Thus, gently stroking their hindquarters would stimulate the mice but poking would not. And it turns out that humans have similar, stroke-sensitive neurons in the hair-covered portions of our skin.

Newborn calves will curl up until the mother begins to remove the afterbirth by vigorously licking the newborn up and down the length of its body. Once on their feet, they will urgently (and sometimes comically) nudge and poke mom with their heads until they find the food source. In almost all cases, mom and calf (usually just one) are walking side by side within the hour. By the end of a full day or so, newborns are galloping.

After the meeting, I hurried home to find my wife running hot water over a liter 7-UP bottle filled with frozen colostrum. After the slushee had finally liquefied and warmed to an appropriate temperature, we headed out to the barn to find the calf, head still tucked, on the bed of straw left earlier in the day. But she wan't interested in food. Moreover, it seemed obvious to us that her strength had begun to ebb. We began to wonder if we were too late. Making one last phone call, my wife got some interesting advice: rub the calf vigorously up and down the length of her body. So grabbing some old towels that we keep on hand, we went to work. And within 30 to 40 seconds of stroking, the calf's ears pricked. After another 20 seconds or so she struggled to her feet for the very first time, bleating like a lamb. To my utter amazement, the rubdown had triggered a deep instinct in her to stand and find food, which we just happened to have on hand. She emptied the bottle quickly and not entirely sure-footed yet, looked around at her world, perhaps for the very first time. My wife named her Bella.

I have no doubt that the research behind "Brain basis for why petting feels so good" has uncovered important news about the significance of touch. The identified neurons, for example, may one day play a role in therapies. At the very least science knows something it didn't previously know about how touch electrifies the body. I was disappointed, though, when the article went on to surmise that touch might have developed to "encourage social grooming," which seemed, having spent the prior evening like I had, to lack imagination. I was guilty of that too, of course. I had always assumed that the licking was merely an act of hygiene, a rudimentary get-to-know-you that helped warm up a calf by drying and fluffing its coat against the elements. What I had discovered instead was that mom's licking, her touch, was scene one in an act of survival. I had failed to notice that touch triggered nursing. Whether toweled down in the field by mom or by two human caretakers, a newborn calf must experience touch to understand who and what it is - a defenseless animal being urged, awakened, into the present.

One of my favorite poems is Stanley Kunitz's "Touch Me," in which the poet, in the winter of his life, acknowledges the approaching storm. He ends with these plaintive words to his wife: "Touch me, remind me who I am." As Bella hungrily downed her first meal, I had a poem in mind.