Now, back to work

It's been a looong time since I last wrote and I just wanted to say hello and update you on the last few months.

Back in November, when we were last in touch, I'd turned in the first draft of my book. Huzzah! And then I waited, sometimes impatiently, for my editor to get a chance to read it. A few things happened during that period. I finished my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington, an experience that has been more rewarding than I can say. After a year living on campus as a faculty-in-residence in Fredericksburg, Va., I found a new, more permanent home up north, in Arlington and spent way too many hours on Apartment Therapy for decor ideas. I mostly finished planning my wedding, which is happening in June. Oh, and I trained for and ran a 10-mile race, my first foray into distance running.

In terms of my writing life, there are two big highlights. Rebecca Skloot, a hero to me and just about every other science writer, came to lecture at my university and I got to chat with her. I also attended The Power of Narrative Conference in Boston (you might have heard about it because of these unfortunate Gay Talese comments), where I went total fangirl on Mary Roach. Both writers were just as warm and inviting in person as they seemed on the page. 
 

With Mary Roach at Boston University

With Mary Roach at Boston University

With Rebecca Skloot at the University of Mary Washington

With Rebecca Skloot at the University of Mary Washington

Now, it appears my wait will soon be over. My editor tells me she's liking what she's read and that she'll have some comments to me within days. As I get ready to return to my book, I've been thinking about the advice of author of "Sin and Syntax," Constance Hale, whom I heard speak at the narrative conference. She said that for writers, the first draft is about getting ideas down in the right order. The second is about refining actual words. While I've been hearing the same old writing advice for decades, "show don't tell" and "use compelling verbs," Hale had a few new ones that I plan on putting to use. I'll give you my favorite three pointers from her talk.

1) To write visually, try drawing. Diane Ackerman is a poet who writes a lot about the natural world. In a description of a golden tailed monkey, she wrote that it had a "guitar pick-shaped tongue." That's a lovely description that I can really picture. She came up with it, Hale explained, by, you guessed it, drawing the tongue. Seeing the monkey in person, all Ackerman saw was a tongue. It was the sketch that made her see it as a guitar pick.

2) Use dynamic, not static verbs. We've heard of passive and active verb tenses. But Hale says that perhaps it's more useful to think of verbs as either static or dynamic. To be, to seem, to taste versus to whistle, to waffle, to wonder. The first three verbs set themselves up to be followed by a word that refers back to the subject. The sugar tastes sweet. Sweet is referring right back to sugar. The sentence is static. In the case of dynamic verbs, there's an action being taken to something else, creating a forward motion. She wonders about seaweed. Wonders sets up a situation in which the word following is separate from the subject. Make sense? There are plenty of other examples in this quick blog post on the concept. 

3) Consult a dictionary or thesaurus. Okay, this isn't a new one, but Hale reminded me to actually look at the physical book and not the online version. I've become a fan of Roget's again. So many more words! Hale also introduced me to a number of other types of reference books. Have you heard of a visual dictionary? Mine just arrived, and it's so cool. What about a visual thesaurus?

I hope these suggestions are useful for your own writing.

And enjoy the spring weather!

Sushma Subramanian

Finishing touches

I’ve been waiting to share some news with you. I finished my book! It will still be a long while, probably more than a year, before the book hits store shelves. I still have a few tiny holes to fill in with some additional reporting. My editor needs to go through it, and I’ll need to make some changes. Then a copyeditor will look over it, and I'll have to make even more changes. The publishing house will commission the cover art and any explanatory diagrams. We'll also need to figure out a plan for publicity. Even once a book is written, there are many, many steps before publication. But still, it’s exciting to get to this moment. And the end is getting closer.

While I'm thrilled, I've also been hit with a strange feeling of purposelessness, like that feeling marathon runners get after the race is done. Though there’s still much to be done, the work going forward won’t be nearly as intense. So what do I do with all this free time? I’ve been focusing on my teaching, and I’m working on a touch-related article for Discover magazine. And there's wedding planning. I started taking a Muay Thai class last week, and I’m thinking about making it a new hobby, though I’ve certainly never been much of a fighter so I don’t know how long it will stick. Do you guys have any ideas for me? New recipes to try? Crafting projects that don’t require too much coordination?

Finishing my book means that you’ll be hearing from me less frequently. Now that the reporting is just about done, I just don’t have as much to say in a monthly newsletter, though I might still send out messages once in a while when I find some interesting new factoid on touch or when my cover art is finalized. And you’ll certainly hear from me when it’s time for the book launch. Until then, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to read my little notes each month. The routine of sending out dispatches to an audience was immensely helpful, and the comments I got from you along the way were so thought-provoking and encouraging. You guys are the best.

For now, I'll leave you with a list of books I want to read, mostly but not all popular science stuff, now that I’ve got a little more time.
 
1) The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two
by Elana Ferrante (I suspect I’ll be tearing through this four-part series. I loved the first book, which I read while finishing up my own book.) 

2) The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club
by Eileen Pollack
 
3) Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
by Cynthia Barnett
 
4) Naturalist
by E.O. Wilson
 
5) Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
by Jon Mooallem

Cheers!

Sushma Subramanian

On being wrong

Last weekend, I was in Reston, Virginia for the Fourth International Fascia Research Congress. Fascia is connective tissue that forms a sort of shrink-wrap that attaches, stabilizes, encloses and separates our muscles and other organs. Many alternative medicine practitioners refer to fascia to explain the efficacy of their therapies. They say their techniques loosen or liquefy the fascia or make it function better, often with little evidence. This conference was created with a plan to build bridges between the alternative medicine and science communities by encouraging collaborations on research to better understand the molecular, cellular and biomechanical properties of fascia.

The first night’s main speaker was Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, a plastic surgeon from France. Guimberteau, a shaggy haired, mustachioed man, was sitting up on stage in front of a lit-up green wall that made him look like the Wizard of Oz. He presented several close-up videos taken during surgeries to show the audience what connective tissue looks like. He explained that fascia was a vast network that was constantly reshaping itself to adapt to pressure exerted on the body. It provided continuity through the body. Guimberteau explained that it was important to look at fascia not just as a structural coating, but as an important network that could play a central role in connectivity and communication between body parts.

One of Guimberteau's images of fascia

One of Guimberteau's images of fascia

As I set there trying to absorb Guimberteau’s talk, I heard a crowd of body workers behind me saying yes in agreement with his points. “This is what we’ve been saying,” one of them behind me said. “Absolutely.” I wanted to remind them that Guimberteau’s message was still theoretical. He was essentially advocating for more research that would look at fascia as a more important player in the body, which is an important paradigm shift in science. But he wasn't providing conclusive evidence. 

There are many things the fascia does, like encourage the synthesis of collagen when manipulated, which body workers have claimed for a long time. But body workers continue to make unfounded claims, like that therapeutic touch can convert fascia from being highly viscous to thin and blood-like. I understand their excitement about how science is starting to confirm some long-held beliefs about fascia. But the reactions I kept hearing made me think about the ways that we all tend to selectively pay attention to evidence that affirms what we already believe, while we ignore anything that contradicts us. The conference brought me back to that time many months ago when I was telling you guys about my skepticism about my massage lessons. The scientific community, which was definitely informing my own thinking, makes the same mistake as the bodyworkers did in that lecture when it looks at the lack of evidence for certain therapies and plainly dismisses them. But people keep turning to these techniques because they do work, and it's important to investigate how. 

People often say that journalists are biased, to the right or to the left. I believe that, instead, we’re biased in favor of story. Often, when we’re building a particular narrative, we have a tendency to ignore facts that may negate our premise. As Brent Cunningham wrote in his 2003 essay “Rethinking Objectivity,” which I assign to my journalism students each semester, “We are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy." Last weekend was an important reminder for me to make more effort each day to challenge my pre-existing narratives, in my writing and in my life, whether I’m scribbling away at a paragraph about scientific evidence for touch-based therapy or making assumptions about my new home in the South. It’s important to look at our tightly held beliefs and then consider how they may be wrong.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Sushma Subramanian

A trip to the Apple store

Like many of you, I've been reading news stories for a while now about all the new haptic components in Apple devices. I'm embarrassed to say, though, that while i've been doing a ton of research about the world of futuristic technologies to enhance our tactile experiences, I hadn't actually gone to check out what's available now. That is, until last weekend when I finally had the chance to drop by an Apple store. 

What I saw was very cool. The new Macbook has what's called a "force touch" trackpad. though it looks and feels like just the old trackpad we're used to, it doesn't actually have any moving parts. When you press down on it and feel a click, that's not a mechanical movement that you're feeling but the magic of haptic feedback. Force touch uses sensors to detect how much downward pressure is being applied. when there's enough pressure (and you can adjust the sensitivity levels), a motor under the trackpad pushes up against the finger and vibrates to simulate a click. 

The new haptic sensors giver users a slew of new ways to control functions on the computer. For instance, tapping the pad versus pressing down on it are interpreted by several programs as separate commands. One of the coolest applications I saw was for drawing. depending on how hard I pressed, I could draw a thick or a thin line, thanks to its sensing capabilities.

The new Apple Watch also uses force touch. But another thing it does is provide you little haptic nudges, basically buzzes and rumbles, to provide reminders about things, like making it to an appointment or taking a right turn at the next traffic light. it's a subtle but effective use of touch to replace all those annoying beeps and chirps used in usual alerts.

It will be interesting to see what comes out next, as universities are now creating touch pads that use vibrations and static electricity to produce the illusion of images and 3-D effects on the screen. It's just a matter of time before these new features are available for all of us to use. I'm now fantasizing about getting an Apple Watch, but I'm thinking I'll wait until the next generation comes out.

Sending you all a virtual high-five!

Sushma Subramanian

Dispatch from Chicago

You may remember that I've mentioned the word haptics a few times in previous newsletters. It refers to the study of any form of interaction involving touch. I've spent this past week at the World Haptics Conference in Chicago, where I've met some of the top scientists in the field who are working on understanding the mechanisms behind our sense of touch and using it to create interactive technology that gives the impression of textures and feelings. Most of our current technology just uses sight and sound, so they see the emergence of haptics as the next step in the digital age. I have a lot to say about the things I've learned here, but for now, I'll leave you with the top 5 coolest things I've seen.

Because we're increasingly interacting with our touch screens rather than buttons, plenty of companies are investigating how to make us feel clicks and shapes and textures on these flat surface using faint electrical charges and vibrations. This is a screen made by the company Tanvas. It's a pretty neat effect, and definitely a step forward in this technology, though that snakeskin texture on the left didn't quite read as realistic to me. The one on the far right, on the other hand, felt true to the image.

Because we're increasingly interacting with our touch screens rather than buttons, plenty of companies are investigating how to make us feel clicks and shapes and textures on these flat surface using faint electrical charges and vibrations. This is a screen made by the company Tanvas. It's a pretty neat effect, and definitely a step forward in this technology, though that snakeskin texture on the left didn't quite read as realistic to me. The one on the far right, on the other hand, felt true to the image.

Students at Saitama University in Japan have me place my finger on a block of metal with double-sided tape on it. It's sticky to the touch. Then, they add an ultrasonic vibration, and it becomes as slippery as a block of ice. This was one of my favorites. Typically these effects are meant to add texture where there is none, but here's a case where a feeling is actually removed.

Students at Saitama University in Japan have me place my finger on a block of metal with double-sided tape on it. It's sticky to the touch. Then, they add an ultrasonic vibration, and it becomes as slippery as a block of ice. This was one of my favorites. Typically these effects are meant to add texture where there is none, but here's a case where a feeling is actually removed.

A student at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo presents a belt that applies pressure to the right of the waist, making the conference participant feel like his torso is turning left. The illusion is magnified while walking. While most of us are aware of several optical illusions, this is an example of a pretty freaky haptic illusion.

A student at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo presents a belt that applies pressure to the right of the waist, making the conference participant feel like his torso is turning left. The illusion is magnified while walking. While most of us are aware of several optical illusions, this is an example of a pretty freaky haptic illusion.

Sven Topp, a deaf blind man from Australia communicates with his wife using touch. Topp has funding from Google to create a machine that translates spoken words into the finger spellings he uses. It's a truly beautiful-looking language. I couldn't decide who was more amazing: Topp or his wife, who had to learn how to sign words such as "cutaneous" and "actuator" to prepare to translate for him.

Sven Topp, a deaf blind man from Australia communicates with his wife using touch. Topp has funding from Google to create a machine that translates spoken words into the finger spellings he uses. It's a truly beautiful-looking language. I couldn't decide who was more amazing: Topp or his wife, who had to learn how to sign words such as "cutaneous" and "actuator" to prepare to translate for him.

A conference attendee is testing out a dental surgery simulation created by the company Moog. He's looking at a 3-D image of a tooth and holding a drilling tool. The machine convincingly mimics the feeling of the metal sliding across the hard surface of the tooth and the vibration created by drilling.

A conference attendee is testing out a dental surgery simulation created by the company Moog. He's looking at a 3-D image of a tooth and holding a drilling tool. The machine convincingly mimics the feeling of the metal sliding across the hard surface of the tooth and the vibration created by drilling.

I hope you're all enjoying the summer!

Sushma Subramanian

Some thoughts on writing (and some news!)

Summer break is here! I’ve so badly wanted to use my vacation from teaching to get down to some serious writing, but somehow I haven’t done quite as much as I’d like. I have excuses, of course, the biggest being that I’m moving. I’ve packed up my New York apartment, and this fall I’ll be going to Fredericksburg, Virginia to teach journalism at the University of Mary Washington and continue my own journalistic work. I get nostalgic just thinking about it because, well, New York is the best. Really, it is. So, yes, I’ve been busy with cardboard boxes and movers and logistics at the new school.
 
But I think the real problem getting in my way is perfectionism, a killer for basically every writer I can think of. We all know that the key to goodwriting is rewriting, that we can’t expect our thoughts to come out fully formed and gleaming, that we have to start with somewhat messy first drafts and then work on polishing those words. But still, when dealing with a blank page, it’s always a bit of a challenge to allow myself to just go ahead and write something really, really bad. So, starting now, I’m giving myself free license.
 
The, ahem, “shitty first draft” is something that Anne Lamott writes about in one of my favorite books, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions onWriting and Life,” and I’ve been re-reading parts of it as I gear up for my next few weeks, which I’ll be spending at NESCent, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a nonprofit cross-disciplinary research center jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. I'll be a journalist-in-residence, a job with no real requirements except that I get my work done. I get giddy when I think about having day-long stretches to spend with my nose in my laptop. No distractions. And I hope that by the end of it, I’ll have two-thirds of my book ready to go to my editor. Fingers crossed. I’ll leave you with a few words from Lamott, which really do apply to life outside of writing:
 
 “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow… We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning—sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.
 
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be some thing great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
 
Xoxo,
 
Sushma Subramanian

The Way Chocolate Melts

Remember last month, when I said I was planning to spend some time learning about how companies create products that appeal to our sense of touch? Well, I'm in Berlin right now after a week of doing just that. I've been conducting interviews with textile manufacturers, automakers and food scientists about enhancing tactile experiences. My favorite so far was with Nathalie Martin, leader for the Behavior and Perception Group at the Nestle Lausanne Research Center. 

Martin explained that Nestle had given her an assignment in 2009 to improve a chocolate bar without changing its recipe. One of her ideas was to create a new shape for it that would optimize its melty quality. She hypothesized that giving each piece a rounder, egg-like shape instead of a flat plane would add to the surface area that users could contact with their tongues, making it more pleasurable, and also cause a faster, more intense release of the chocolate's aroma. 

To test this theory, she measured a bunch of different mouths and found an ideal size for a single piece of chocolate. Then, she and her collaborators made a bunch of different molds about the same size in various shapes - a rectangle, a triangle, a wing, an oval, a trapezoid and an egg. She made a few trial batches with each mold and had 45 trained tasters try out the varieties. Amongst chocolate eaters, there are those of us who are biters and those of us who are suckers. In this case, she asked for all the tasters to let the chocolate melt in their mouths. No chewing.

Martin's hypothesis did pan out, but not in the way she expected. The round, egg-like shape, and the rectangle were perceived to melt the most, but that didn't exactly correlate with a more chocolatey flavor. In fact, the shapes that melted the slowest, the sail and the wing, were perceived to have a more intense aroma. After evaluating the results, the team came to believe that melting indeed helps to release the volatile compounds in a piece of chocolate, but the shape can’t perfectly conform to the mouth because there needs to be enough volume for air to freely circulate and carry those aromas to those nose.

The chocolate shapes they went with

The chocolate shapes they went with

I was in bed, tossing and turning from jetlag, when I realized Nestle had sent me home with some of its specially-shaped chocolate, which is called Caillier of Switzerland Sublim Noir. 

I was in bed, tossing and turning from jetlag, when I realized Nestle had sent me home with some of its specially-shaped chocolate, which is called Caillier of Switzerland Sublim Noir. 

Martin's field has a name: psycho-rheology. Rheology involves finding ways to measure the texture and flow of materials. To understand how we eat, its important to pick apart how our mouths alter what we consume, moving it around from side to side, chewing it with various parts of our teeth, adding saliva. The reason for the addition of the prefix “psycho” is that there’s also a big brain science element. The physical changes in food don’t always line up with our perceptions of them. 

What Martin and her team kept telling me was how much touch, when it came to food, fascinated them. Flavor is easy to figure out. Sugar makes things sweeter. Vanilla gives them a bit more complexity. But texture doesn't always make logical sense. A grain of sugar and a grain of sand in a pot of yogurt may be detected almost identically by a machine or a microscope. But to the mouth, they're entirely different. 

I learned a lot of other ways that Nestle applies science to alter our food experiences. Foods that take longer to chew actually make us feel fuller. Adding flavor notes of butter and coconut can actually make us perceive yogurt as fattier, without having to add additional thickener. And using a cooking extruder, which is what's used to make puffed cereals such as Cheerios, with ingredients for ice cream, can actually build imperceptible air bubbles, make it lighter than the real thing but just as creamy-feeling.

Today, I'm celebrating May Day (the equivalent of Labor Day in much of Europe), by taking the day off and attending a yearly street fair.

Prost!

Sushma Subramanian

The Science Behind Your Face Cream

Chatting with Naoki Saito, a research scientist with the Sensory and Emotional Research Group at Shiseido, about the HapLog, which tests skin deformation during product application to give scientists a measure of how users sense its texture

Chatting with Naoki Saito, a research scientist with the Sensory and Emotional Research Group at Shiseido, about the HapLog, which tests skin deformation during product application to give scientists a measure of how users sense its texture

Earlier this month I spent a day in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo, where the beauty brand Shiseido has a research center. Until my visit, I hadn't given much thought to how the products I use on my face and body feel; I was more concerned that they were working - moisturizing my skin and preventing wrinkles and whatnot. But grooming is something we do for reasons beyond function; we do it because it feels good, whether we're aware of it or not. I'd heard about Shiseido's research in this area from a researcher at Columbia several months ago and was interested in learning more.

Early on in my discussion with Shiseido researchers, we got to talking about sunscreen. I know I should be wearing sunscreen everyday, but I have a hard time forcing myself to use it in the morning because of the margarine-like film it leaves behind. Shiseido has been working on developing a solution to this tactile problem. The oily coating on sunscreen exists to be water-repellant, the researchers explained. So, using a high-pressure emulsification process, the company has found a way to suspend the tiny droplets of oil mixed with powders for sun protection in water. And to prevent the water from washing away in the pool or ocean, it uses a special polymer. The company's hope is that the formulation gives the sunscreen a lighter, fresher feeling that makes consumers more likely to use it. 

Katsunori Yoshida, manager of the Prestige Products Information Development Group, explained that we all have personalized preferences for our products. For example, people in dryer, older climates might prefer a greasier finish to their face creams than people in warmer, more humid locales. In testing out various preferences, researchers at Shiseido also found that Asian women spend far more time on skin care than any other culture. And so, they created a product for them called Revital Night Cream that takes a long time to rub into the skin. When the product is first applied, it is hydrophilic emulsion, meaning that it mixes well with water. It has a fresh and pliable quality that makes it extremely spreadable. Several seconds into application, though, some of the water gets absorbed and some of it evaporates, and it transforms into a lipophilic emulsion that is meant to lock in moisture and solidify. As I rubbed the cream onto the back of my hand, I could feel how it took longer to massage into my skin than my usual moisturizer, and I could sense the texture transforming under my fingers.

Since I returned from my trip, it's been interesting to think about the people behind the products we use and how they engineer them to appeal to our senses. Next month, my research will delve into how companies shape our tactile experiences of the world in ways that we don't consider, from the melty qualities of chocolate to the coolness of Tencel leggings to the particular click of buttons in a luxury car. I look forward to meeting the scientists whose job it is to make our stuff feel better. 

Wishing you adventures in the coming month as well!

Sushma Subramanian

A few more things you might not know

Sorry for my lateness! I really meant to send out my newsletter sooner, but things kept getting in the way, like poor Internet access, a crazy schedule and just plain exhaustion. You see, I spent the last couple weeks out of the country, in India for a friend's wedding and Japan for book research and some sight-seeing. I got back a few days ago, and I finally have some free time. I figured I'd keep this one short, adding to my previous list of fun facts about touch. Next month, or really in a few weeks, I'll tell you all about my meeting in Japan with the beauty company Shiseido, which is doing some pretty fascinating touch research.

1) Many primate species spend up to 20 percent of their time in the wild grooming each other, which helps them form social bonds and promotes cooperation. Research shows that this grooming helps them to reconcile conflicts, create allegiances regarding food gathering, maintain social hierarchies and attract mates. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has a theory that humans don't groom nearly as much because we've found language to be a more efficient way of maintaining these relationships, especially in large social groups. I snapped the picture below while going for a hike in Kyoto. The expression on the face of that macaque getting a rub-down is priceless.

Monkey reserve at Arashiyama, a district in Kyoto known for its natural beauty.

Monkey reserve at Arashiyama, a district in Kyoto known for its natural beauty.

2) Peter Anderson, a communications professor at San Diego State University, conducted a series of studies 10 years ago examining how different cultures approach touch in diverse public places, such as international airports, grocery stores and malls. Asian cultures were at the lowest end of the touch scale, while Latin Americans and Middle Easterners were on the other. Anderson believes that people from warmer climates touch more than people from colder cultures, where they may have historically had so much work to do staying warm - collecting firewood, storing up food and building weather-proof homes - that they didn’t have as much time for physical affection. 

3) Our skin is covered in sensors that detect different types of touch, from vibration to raised edges to temperature to movement. Different touch sensations travel to our brains at different speeds. The fastest, which convey factual information about touch, zip up at 250 miles per hour and tell us about things like light sensations and body movements. The slowest, which have to do with the emotional qualities of touch such as pain and pleasure, inch along at around two miles per hour. When stroking your partner's arm, use steady pressure at a rate of one inch per second. That's when so-called C-fibers, which very slowly transport pleasant sensations to our brains, become the most activated. 

4) Some researchers say that modern society (including our obsession with communicating through technology and our workplace rules banning physical contact) is leaving us all touch-deprived. According to Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute in Miami, touch deprivation can lead to aggression, depression and bad health. Though I've written before about the power of touch, I have to admit I am a bit skeptical about the idea of touch deprivation. But have you heard about cuddle centers opening up all over the country? Maybe it's a sign we all need to be getting more hugs.

5) Touch can be a powerful social tool. Research by Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, shows that NBA basketball teams that start their season with more chest-bumps, butt slaps and high-fives tend to perform better together than those without as much physical contact. "Touching helps foster teamwork," Kraus says. Waitresses who lightly touch their customers garner bigger tips, and teachers who ask their students to demonstrate math problem solutions on a blackboard get more volunteers when they use touch. We might touch less than our primate ancestors, but it seems physical closeness performs many of the same functions for us.

Hope you're enjoying the start of spring!

Sushma subramanian

How We Feel

You may remember the picture of a star-nosed mole that I included in a previous newsletter. To jog your memory, it was a small furry creature about the size of a hamster. It had the body shape of a seal, the fat paws and long claws of a sloth and in place of a normal-looking head, it had a star-shaped appendage on its snout. The mole's star organ, which is smaller than a fingernail, is innervated 10 times more than the whole human hand and allows it to feel textures and vibrations of tiny insects underground that its foraging competitors can't detect. Last month, I met with Diana Bautista, an associate professor of cell and developmental biology at U.C. Berkeley, who spends a lot of time studying these animals. For a scientist specializing in understanding the molecular basis of touch, they're the ideal study organism.

I visited Bautista so she could explain touch to me at a cellular level, from skin to brain. She told me what she knows, which I write about in my book, but there's also plenty that isn't known. It turns out that the process of sensory transduction for touch, or how pressure on our skin gets converted into an electrical signal that reaches our brain, is quite mysterious. Our understanding of touch lags behind the other senses, something that Bautista is trying to rectify. To put this into historical context, scientists discovered about 130 years ago that vertebrates have a protein in their eyes called rhodopsin, which changes shape when it is bombarded with light and triggers a channel of events that convert it into electrical signals. And the transduction channels for our sense of smell were discovered in the 1990s. Only in the last few years did scientists discover a channel responsible for light touch sensations. But there are so many others that remain undiscovered, such as those for itch and pain and vibration.

Diana Bautista, Image courtesy of UC Berkeley News

Diana Bautista, Image courtesy of UC Berkeley News

Bautista's studies of the star-nosed mole aim to discover more of these channels. She described for me how she conducts her research. In the springtime, Bautista and her colleague Kenneth Catania, a MacArthur genius and professor at Vanderbilt University, get hunting licenses to collect specimens in a state forest in northern Pennsylvania. They hike in muck boots along creeks searching for signs of mole tunnels. As they find holes in the ground, they set off hundreds of Havahart mousetraps, which lock up the animals live. Moles eat around the clock, and they would starve to death without food for a few hours, so Bautista and Catania have to check the traps around the clock and also let out any other animals they happen to catch, such as weasels and snakes. They spend about five days doing this. In a good year, they might catch 20 moles this way.

Once she has them back at her lab, Bautista tests the moles to see which molecules are expressed at a higher level in the star organ than in the rest of its body. That way, she has a good idea of which ones might make good candidates for touch research. Then, she and her research partners identify the genes that encode these sensors. Some of these genes correspond with ones found in mice, and also humans. Once the group identifies the genes they want to study, they silence them in test mice to see how their abilities to detect touch and pain are altered. Bautista is still in the midst of this research, but she hopes to finish in two years. By that time, she hopes to add to our current, slim library of touch transduction channels.  

Bautista believes that one of the reasons for the lack of touch research is that we don't realize how important it is. But in fact, touch is responsible for so many things that we do daily and often take for granted. That's definitely a lesson I've learned through the course of the research for my book. And I'd never really thought about it before, but Bautista explained to me that altered tactile sensitivity is one of the most common complaints from a clinical perspective, from diabetes numbness to peripheral nerve damage to chronic pain. Meeting with Diana, and learning about the current state of our understanding of touch, was fascinating. I hope to join her this spring when she and Catania go on their annual mole-hunting trip.

Thanks for reading!

Sushma Subramanian

Beyond Science

A couple newsletters ago, I promised to go deeper into my massage school experience. Though I wanted to write about it sooner, I felt like I needed more time to gather my thoughts. Since I took my final last week an the semester came to a close, I decided that I was finally ready. 

The course I just finished was on the topic of East/West physiology. I had told an advisor at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine that I wanted to learn about the theories and practice of massage. And so, she suggested this course, which was mostly about the concept of health and disease in traditional Chinese medicine. Next semester, I'm taking two hands-on classes, one in Swedish massage and the other in Tuina, a Chinese medical massage technique.

A few sessions in, I thought I'd made a serious mistake in class selection. My teacher Mary was telling us about the five elements our bodies are made up of - wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Apparently, we're built with one or two dominant elements, which show up in our personalities. "You know those people who go to the pre-party, then the party, then the after-party and then to the diner?" asked Mary. "That's totally me. I've got a lot of fire." Mary, warm, charismatic and rosy-cheeked, exudes fire. Excess fire is said to lead to certain health risks typically associated with the heart, such as palpitations and hypertension. Yeah right, I thought.

Western massage is more scientifically-focused than Eastern. The purpose of a Swedish massage is to increase the flow of blood and lymph in the body to reduce achiness and also give the client an overall sense of calm. Chinese medical massage focuses more treating imbalances, which can lead to illness, through the body's 12 energy channels. Though it sounded crazy at first, as the semester progressed, I realized that my skepticism was getting in the way of my learning, and I had to let it go.

Once I did, I started to relate to the thought process of the ancient Chinese doctors. Mary taught us about zhi (pronounced zhurr) energy, or willpower, which is considered part of a channel through the body associated with the energy of the kidneys. When we've begun to exhaust our zhi, we might experience lower back pain, leg pain, tinnitus and poor memory. I know many times when I've been stressed out, my back starts to hurt. Though my experience is hardly a measure of the idea's scientific soundness, it made sense that we hold certain emotions in the soft tissue of our bodies. I started to appreciate the metaphorical system that the Chinese developed to convey how certain types of touch on specific points on the body can influence our overall health.

One of the benefits of being in massage school is that I get some very modestly-priced massages, $5 in fact. And because I love a good deal, I've been going every week. I've had amazing massages and ones that were just okay, and what separates them is intuition. A good massage therapist just seems to spot the sources of pain more easily and the assess what type of touch will make me feel better. I think that's where I came to value the lessons of traditional Chinese medicine. That its techniques wouldn't stand up to peer review scrutiny started to matter to me less and less. I started to value the intuitive sense about wellness and our bodies that it was based on. Touch is a language we're born with, and sometimes we just need to remind ourselves how to use it.

Some of my reading as of late.

Some of my reading as of late.

* Correction: In my October newsletter, I mentioned that the star-nosed mole is the most sensitive animal. While it may have the most sensitive skin among mammals, recent research shows that the roundworm C. elegans may be even more touch-sensitive.

Happy holidays!

Sushma Subramanian

Some Things You Might Not Know

Rather than send you my typical update this month, I figured that I’d instead present you with my “Top 10 Facts About Touch.” I'm not sure if these really do rank as the top, and there are so many I left out that I’m wondering if I might have to do a repeat some time soon. But for now, here goes...

1) Many scientists say that touch is our most mysterious sense. We understand the chemical process of taste and the transformation of light into electrical stimulus in the eye, but by comparison our understanding of touch is still in its early stages. We don’t yet know how pressure on our skin gets converted into a feeling.

2) Touch is technically just what we sense on our skin. But there’s a whole host of sensations that actually make up how we feel around our surroundings – movement and signals from the joints, tendons and muscles. That much bigger sense is called haptic perception.

3) A good massage does more than just make us feel good. It decreases blood levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that when chronically elevated can impair both our physical and mental health. Studies also show that massage has an effect on immune function and inflammation.

4) There's a theory that during human evolution, our social connections were so important to our survival that the emotional cues we developed to maintain these relationships piggybacked on our pain signals, which is perhaps why we feel physical anguish during a breakup.

5) The most sensitive mammal in the world is presumed to be the homely star-nosed mole. Its star organ helps it find its way through dark underground networks of tunnels to find worms and insects to eat.

6) Swedish massage was invented in the late 1800s by a Dutchman named Johan Georg Mezger. He was a Francophile, which is why the basic strokes - effleurage, tapotement, etc. - are in French. 

7) Red heads feel less pain!

8) Touch affects taste. According to Charles Spence, an English professor of experimental psychology, we actually rate food as tasting better when we eat it with heavier silverware. Spence is currently consulting with a cookware company to help design eating utensils to enhance our food's flavors.

9) A lack of human touch is impacting the mental health of Ebola victims.

10) I found out yesterday that I passed my massage midterm!

Happy Halloween!

Sushma Subramanian