Research

hug it out!

Making exhibitions requires a lot of teamwork, so I’ve been practicing sharing epic high-fives. Just the other day, K, R and I shared a spinning jump triple. That momentary gesture turned a feeling of mild accomplishment into floaty elation.

In “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much,” (NYTimes.com, February 22, 2010) Benedict Carey examines the psychology and neuroscience of meaningful touches.

Momentary touches, [researchers] say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words….

“We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions,” Dr. [Matthew] Hertenstein [a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana] said. Now it turns out to be “a much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined.

As an artist working with installation and phenomenology, I’m really interested in embodied experiences. As Lakoff & Johnson explain in “Metaphors We Live By,” metaphors are not merely linguistic devices, but cognitive tools; we think using metaphors grounded in our physical experience.

High-fives express shared excitement or accomplishment (“Nice one!”). It conveys that this experience is good, and yay for sharing it with me. It is harmless hedonism, of taking pleasure in the present. It’s dorky, hip, sweet, and maybe a little ironic, but maybe also infused with feel-good, unabashed enthusiasm (like Ugo Rodinone’s “Hell Yes!”). I hope I never feel too old to share a high-five.

As usual, I’d like to participate in an art world characterized by community and reciprocity. Supportive touches express mutuality; maybe more curators, artists, critics and collectors should be hugging it out.

…In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

Carey also quotes Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.” Incidentally, Keltner’s mentor was San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, who was profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in an eye-opening article about emotions and facial expressions (“The Naked Face,” New Yorker, 2002). If you’ve heard of the wide, genuine, impossible-to-fake Duchenne smile, then you’ve been touched by Ekman’s influence.

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