Creature Comforts | Hidden Brain This week, Hidden Brain considers the power of touch. First, the story of a grown woman who still sleeps with her baby blanket. Then, the science of why we seek comfort and affection.
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Creature Comforts: The Power Of Touch And Affection In Our Lives

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Creature Comforts: The Power Of Touch And Affection In Our Lives

Creature Comforts: The Power Of Touch And Affection In Our Lives

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. These days, we know how important it is for young children to feel loved. Parents are encouraged to sit with their kids, read to them, hug them, make them feel safe. But believe it or not, this wasn't always the case.

DEBORAH BLUM: It's so fascinating to look back on that period and think to yourself, how could you get that so wrong?

VEDANTAM: This is writer Deborah Blum. She's looked closely at what caused the revolution in psychology around how best to parent children.

BLUM: The early books told mothers not to hold their children at all if they could avoid it, that it would ruin the moral fiber of the child.

VEDANTAM: We'll hear more about the effects of loving touch and its absence in a moment. But first, we turn to one of our colleagues, Alison MacAdam, for a personal story about the importance of affection, touch and attachment. Alison is an editor at NPR, and she has a secret.

ALISON MACADAM, BYLINE: I'll just come out and say it. I sleep with my blanket, my baby blanket. It's white, woven cotton, a bit threadbare. It is the softest thing in the world. Even on the hottest days, my blanket feels cool. When I bury my nose in it, it smells like comfort. As a baby, apparently, I called it baba (ph). So of course, I still call it baba (ph).

Are you rolling your eyes yet? This is embarrassing to admit. And that's because I feel like society tells me I should have given up my blanket a long time ago. I did a quick Google search, and I found all sorts of posts about when and how to wean your child off a blanket - and that's when, not if.

Here's an example. One of those posts claims that psychologists have a wide range of opinions on when children should give up their blankets. But, it says, it is advisable to have overcome this hurdle by the time the child is attending kindergarten. Well, I have not overcome my baba (ph). And I'm convinced I'm not alone.

I know that some of you also crawl into bed and snuggle each night with a soft inanimate object. Do you hide it? Are you ashamed? Even my mom, my very affectionate mom who gave me no shortage of hugs, even she is befuddled about my blanket. I asked her about it.

I want to know what you think of the fact that I still sleep with my baba (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it's a little bazaar.

MACADAM: Why is that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think that's something you usually outgrow and give up as you become older and more secure and comfortable. And you never did. And I was pretty amazed when it went away to college with you. And I'm certainly amazed that you still sleep with it.

MACADAM: Did you hear her word choice? Bazaar, you outgrow it as you become more secure. Ouch, words like this, they creep inside you and park there. If you're wondering how old I am, the answer is I turn 40 this year. I'm married. I have a child. And I've thought a lot about this question. Is my baba (ph) a sign that I'm a failed adult, insecure, immature?

One day, I got this email. It was from my brother in Chicago. He wanted to introduce me to someone, a friend of his. She'd confessed to him that she also sleeps with her baby blanket. I wanted to meet her, maybe a kindred spirit. And that led me to a dark rock club in Chicago. It's called The Empty Bottle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACADAM: It was the beginning of the night. A band was sound checking.

ERIN PAGE: You'll need 4.50 please. It's a cash-only bar.

MACADAM: And that's bartender Erin Page (ph).

PAGE: I would say that I'm a pretty classic punk rock venue bartender, give you a shot in your beer and then you go in, have a good time.

MACADAM: Erin Page, black haired, tattoos up her arms, she sleeps with her baby blanket. I asked Erin if spending evenings in a loud bar makes her long for her blanket.

PAGE: Oh, yeah, all the time, every night. Every night of my life, I go home and I get in my bed. And I put the blankie (ph) on my head or under my head, usually. It's the best.

MACADAM: Here's what really strikes me about Erin. She feels none of the shame I feel about being a full-grown adult with a blanket. She and I talked about that somewhere quieter, at her apartment. When she's not bartending, Erin plays in a punk rock band and she designs poster art. Her walls are decorated with that art, and it has a distinctive Goth style.

PAGE: Like, this is what I'm working on right now. There's a skull and some - the devil and some eyeballs and this woman in a trance.

MACADAM: Erin told me her art is an expression of a child's imagination. And her blankie (ph) is kind of the same thing. It's a way of keeping the good feelings of childhood alive.

Can we go get your blankie (ph)?

PAGE: I have it (laughter). I brought it out 'cause I knew that you would want to see it (laughter).

MACADAM: Erin's blankie (ph) is a faded yellow quilt. You can see the outlines of stitched-on teddy bears that fell off a long time ago. She likes to wrap it over her head like a huge scarf. And let me tell you, the contrast is striking between her tattooed arms and those faded teddy bears. Before I left Erin's apartment, I couldn't help but have a little blankie (ph) convention.

PAGE: Oh, my gosh. Yours is even more threadbare than mine. That's awesome.

MACADAM: Mine is called baba (ph).

PAGE: Baba (ph).

MACADAM: It's called baba (ph).

PAGE: It's so soft.

MACADAM: It is really soft, isn't it (laughter)?

PAGE: It is. It's like cotton balls.

MACADAM: If you're laughing at us, that's fine. But maybe you're the weird one.

PAGE: I think it's weird that you wouldn't want to hold onto something from childhood that was a prized possession.

MACADAM: There's one final issue about my baba (ph) that I should address or, let's say, one final person.

SIMON RODBERG: I'm Simon Rodberg (ph). I'm the husband of Alison MacAdam, who still loves her baba (ph).

MACADAM: And my husband. Every night, I climb into bed with Simon and with baba (ph). So what does he think of that?

RODBERG: I suppose I thought that I might replace baba (ph) at some point, that, you know, you'd never married somebody before. Maybe baba (ph) was just, you know, a placeholder until your husband got there. And I'm not quite sure when I realized that, in fact, I would be sharing the bed with baba (ph) rather than replacing baba (ph) in your affections.

And I think - no, I don't think I mind it, to be honest. I think, you know, I love you. I love your baba (ph). That's just the way our marriage works.

MACADAM: By the way, when I'm not in bed, Simon reaches over to my side of the bed, grabs baba (ph) and snuggles with it himself.

RODBERG: Baba (ph) reminds me of you. There's this thing that you've loved all your life. And I don't know particularly that I have a very good sense of smell. I don't know that it smells like you. It doesn't feel like you. But there's you in it. And so it's nice when I don't actually have you to be able to, you know, put my arms around something that you love.

MACADAM: So I hope all the grown-ups out there who still sleep with their blankets have partners who are as baba (ph) positive as mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: NPR's Alison MacAdam. When we come back, we'll hear about the pioneering scientist who first showed how cuddling with a blanket or a loved one was not only not bad for us, it was absolutely essential to physical and mental well-being.

BLUM: These little baby monkeys would hold onto the cloth. They didn't want to let go. They were cuddling it. It made them feel safe, in a way.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When I first heard Alison MacAdam's story about her comfort blanket, I remembered a wonderful book by the writer Deborah Blum. It explored the powerful role that touch plays in our lives. "Love At Goon Park" tells the story of psychologist Harry Harlow and his groundbreaking experiments about attachment and affection.

Deborah, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

BLUM: Thank you. It's great to be here.

VEDANTAM: You describe in your book something that seems very surprising to me, which is that back in the 1950s, there were many prominent behavioral experts who believed that touch was a problem, that children, in particular, shouldn't be caressed excessively, shouldn't be held and cuddled excessively. Talk to me about that moment and where these experts were coming from.

BLUM: It's so fascinating to look back on that period and think to yourself, how could you get that so wrong? But it grew out of a kind of behaviorist idea that that kind of, you know - a solid foundation of affection, as scientists, including ones I wrote about, would describe it, didn't really matter. The mother was there as a food source, kept the kid warm, answered its immediate physical needs.

But the early books told mothers not to hold their children at all if they could avoid it, that it would ruin the moral fiber of the child. The child would become weak. The child would become dependent. The child would never become an independent human being.

VEDANTAM: So you spent a lot of time in the book talking about a very interesting and controversial figure who, in some ways, set the stage to overturn many of these ideas. So tell me about Harry Harlow, who he was and how he came to his ideas.

BLUM: Yeah, Harry Harlow was a really fascinating, complicated, brilliant, difficult subject to write about. He's the center of "Love At Goon Park." And I often described him as a charismatic, chain-smoking, poetry-writing, alcoholic, philandering workaholic.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BLUM: Right? You can go on and on.

(LAUGHTER)

BLUM: And so the best and worst person to write about 'cause, you know, he inhabits your house while you're writing the book, and he's not easy company. But one of the things that made him such a fascinating and eventually controversial subject was that, yeah, he was intellectually fearless. He was one of the earlier developers of a primate model, right?

We tend to take that for granted now. But, in fact, he went to the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s and built an early primate colony there from scratch, bringing in a small number of monkeys, mostly rhesus macaques, which are very smart, very social monkeys from Southeast Asia.

And they were following kind of the, you know, human model. They kept their baby monkeys separate from the mothers. They kept them in sterile conditions so that, you know, there wasn't infection. They were singly housed. They would give them, though, like, a sterile diaper as kind of bedding and a soft cloth to sleep in in their tiny sterile cage.

When they would go to take out the cloth and put in another clean one, these little baby monkeys would hold onto the cloth. They didn't want to let go. They were cuddling it. They almost had an emotional attachment to it in ways that surprised all of the scientists. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing in the landscape of psychology that would have predicted this because touch didn't matter and emotions were not part of early childhood development.

And so Harlow looked at this. And he said, what does this mean? And so he and a few of his very smart graduate students sat down and they designed a program just to look at the idea that touch actually mattered.

VEDANTAM: Tell me about the experiments that he conducted.

BLUM: So what they did is really very brilliant. They built two versions of a mother, what you might call a surrogate or a robot mother. One of them is made of wire. And one of them has a wire body but has a lovely, cuddly thick cloth padding. You know, it's a cuddly version of the wire mother. Both of them have faces, right? They put on faces.

That was more for the researchers than for the monkeys. And both of them are warm. They put lightbulbs in both of them so it simulate the warmth of a mother's body. And then what they would do is they would put wire mom and cloth mom in the same enclosure with baby monkeys. And they would do one other thing.

Wire mom fed the baby monkeys, right? There was a bottle with milk. The wire mother held the bottle. Cloth mother, her only virtue was that she was warm and cuddly. What they found there was that the baby monkeys, they lived on the cloth mother. They cuddled and held on. And when they got hungry, they had these cloth mothers - if I could create this picture in your mind, they would have these two mothers side by side.

These little baby monkeys still holding on to their warm, cuddly cloth mom will lean over, their head tips over just far enough that they can get to the milk. But they're not going to let go of what Harlow eventually called contact comfort. We need that kind of loving touch as much as we need to be fed.

Obviously, we need to be fed. But in terms of the way we grow up as a solid, well rounded, giving, caring, connected person, the touch is more important, right?

VEDANTAM: So when Harlow did these experiments and he found that the monkeys really needed touch in order to thrive, what was the reception to these ideas when he announced it to the world?

BLUM: Completely hostile in the beginning. He gave a speech - it's still one of my favorite speeches ever in the history of science - called "The Nature Of Love," in which - and to show you what an interesting guy he was, it's full of doggerel poetry. I mean, it's...

(LAUGHTER)

BLUM: You're not going to see this kind of thing very often - but in which he basically got in the face of the scientific community and said, you've blown it. You've been blowing it. He said, every - literature gets this better than us, and poets get this better than us. And we need for psychology to catch up with basic common sense. And he said - and I think this is correct.

There's a lot of parents who get this. They're not listening to you because you have gotten this wrong. And the nature of love is about touch and comfort. And my favorite part of the Harlow message, the nature of love is every day. I'm there for you, which is what touch says. He made that argument. It was completely rejected by the still very powerful behaviorist community.

But if you look at what happens over the next decade or so, he keeps pushing it. His graduate students go out and take that message with them. And they continue to push it. And about the same time or not too much later, you see, you know, child psychologists come up and pick it up.

So it wasn't that, you know, rockets went off and fireworks dazzled in the sky when he gave the speech. But it was that a few people heard him, and it was that he didn't give up.

VEDANTAM: You know, I reached out to you, Deborah, in the first place when I heard Alison MacAdam's story about her security blanket. And one of the things that struck me when I first heard Alison's story is that at some level, she was embarrassed by the fact that she still loves this childhood blanket, that she derives so much comfort from the blanket.

And really as I listened to her and I remembered your book, the thing that really popped in my head was, you know, Alison is just profoundly normal, that the idea that you would actually have things in your life that you would want to cuddle with or even things that you have a ritual of cuddling with before you go to sleep at night, these are hardly things to be ashamed about.

BLUM: I completely agree. And I think if people really think about it, we - you know, you have these moments or objects or memories, we have these points in our life that give us comfort. And sometimes it's something soft and cuddly. I actually - I have my son's tiny T-shirt. And he's almost 27 years old, right? So he was wearing this more than two decades ago.

And when I pick up that shirt, it makes me happy. I think, you know, if we actually sit and examine our own life, that's completely normal, these things that we can touch that remind us of who we are and what we're connected to that give us comfort throughout our lives. And frankly, I like that about us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I like that about us, too. I wish we could end today's episode right here on this sweet note. But there's more to say. There's more to Harry Harlow's story, and there's more to the role of touch in our lives. We felt it wouldn't be honest if we didn't go there. Harry Harlow's experiments into the importance of touch took a dark turn after a personal tragedy in his life.

After a period of depression, he started to explore not just the nature of love but its opposite - isolation, neglect, abuse. He conducted a series of cruel animal experiments, which permanently tarnished his reputation. It's important to talk about them not just because it provides a more complete account of his life but because the experiments have profound implications for social policy today.

What I find so disturbing about Harry Harlow is that someone who spent so much time thinking about love and the importance of love also came up with experiments, especially in his later years, that could only be described as disturbing.

BLUM: And almost torturous, right? They're horribly haunting experiments. And he's probably most famous in the animal rights community of being one of, you know, the most horrible of all primate researchers of the 20th century for the depression experiments in which he was looking at depression as sort of a mental isolation. Can you recover from that?

And to do that, he actually built different devices that would isolate monkeys from everything, from their families, from the rest of the community, from any kind of touch, including human touch. And he would leave them there. And then he would bring them out and see if they could recover in any meaningful way. Some of them did. Some of them were permanently damaged by the isolation.

And in a very Harlow way, he described probably the most infamous of those devices as the pit of despair, which was essentially an inverted pyramid. The baby monkey went into the point of the triangle. It opened up wide-armed with a mesh on top so the little animal couldn't get back out, couldn't be touched. Food and water were supplied, but it was alone in this point.

It was terrible. I mean, we're talking about a social species and one that thrives in comfort of touch. And there was none of that. And they're hard to read and hard to understand, given what he knew about those animals, right? And I don't defend them. And I just can't. And I don't think many of the, you know, psychology students who worked with him, they don't defend them either.

They made a point, but I'm not sure that point needed to be made the way he made it. He did other experiments that are dark that raised some more complicated issues. And the one I want to describe came earlier, in which you're looking at contact comfort. One of the things they discovered about cloth mom, which was really interesting in thinking about development, is that she never rejected, right?

As long as the baby monkey wanted to be in that sort of warm, fuzzy cloth embrace, she was there. And there are plenty of human beings who are less than ideal parents in many ways. Can we study that? And they built a series of what he called evil mothers. And they were evil. They built a cloth mother, and in the cloth was embedded blunt spikes.

And so when the baby monkey comes and clings, the spikes will shoot out and push it off. And they predicted all the monkeys would end up psychotic. They actually got psychosis with those isolation experiments. But in this case, what happened was that the baby monkeys didn't become psychotic. They came back and tried to fix the relationship. And as soon as the spikes retracted, they'd come back.

And they'd try to make her love them. And they'd hold on. And they'd coo. And they'd cling. And they'd flirt. And they'd do everything babies do, monkey babies and human babies - love me, right? Love me, do all of these things that will make you want to be with me. And they would abandon all their other relationships to fix this, right?

Just give up the - you know, wouldn't hang out with their friends. They needed to fix that first fundamental relationship. It's heartbreaking, right? It's heartbreaking to think about it for these little animals and for children. And in one of the things that struck me the most when I went out - I was book touring after "Love At Goon Park" came out.

And I gave a talk. And I described these experiments. And this woman came up afterwards. And she was a nurse in a unit at the hospital there that treated the adult survivors of neglect and abuse. And she said to me, well, you're describing our patients, right? And they're 30 or 40 or 50 or older years old, and they're still trying to fix that first relationship.

VEDANTAM: I can see echoes also with sort of the debates we've had over, for example, solitary confinement, and sort of the effects of solitary confinement on human beings and what happens to them. And Harry Harlow's not the only one who's done work on this, of course. But it feels, again, that there's just such strong echoes with child abuse and solitary confinement and what happens in human beings when they're deprived of touch long, long, long after they've stopped being children.

BLUM: We've done these experiments. We don't have to do them again. We should never do them again. But we should listen to them because they do tell us profound things about solitary confinement, right? They should have been listened to a lot more. About touch, about the importance of what I think of as, you know, kitchen love, love as an everyday quality.

They still have an important message. And you can love or hate Harry Harlow, and people do both, right? But some of the messages, some of the ideas, some of the things that he tried to teach still matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Deborah Blum is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Love At Goon Park." This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman and Jenny Schmidt. Our staff includes Kara McGuirk-Alison, Max Nesterak and Chris Benderev. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen to my stories on your local public radio station.

If you liked this episode, please write a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. It'll help others find the show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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