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How Can Physical Touch Be Related to Emotional Affection (As It Can Be, and Often Is)?
(This is taken from the book The Meaning of Love)
Rick Garlikov

I would like to discuss something that is rather whimsical but which I think has an important point lurking behind it, though I cannot quite see that point clearly.

   Once, while I was watching a particular episode of Star Trek (the original tv series), it made me think how odd in a way the emotional aspect of sex is.  It was an episode in which part of the crew lands on a desolate planet to find only a laboratory housing some jars that glowed brightly.  It turned out that these jars contained the intact, still functioning minds of the formerly populated planet's leading scientist and his wife (one in each jar).  They -- their minds -- had been in these jars for centuries, and although they could communicate with each other and with the crew of the Enterprise via telepathy, they were tired of being in the same old place unable to move about, etc.  They asked, and were given, permission to take over Captain Kirk's body and that of a beautiful female astro-physicist temporarily (putting, for the duration, these people mind's in the jars -- which then did not glow nearly as brightly) in order to build some robot bodies for themselves.  However, the first thing they did upon taking over the two others' bodies was to passionately embrace and kiss.  That seemed very touching and romantic at first, but then it made me wonder why they did that, and who, after all, was being kissed, or doing the kissing.  Why was it so important for the scientist to kiss this other body with his wife's mind in it, and vice versa? Would he have done so had she been ugly, or in another man's body, or in a dogs?!! Why didn't they just put the jars closer together on the shelf in the first place, touching each other?  Why not both be in the same jar?  Or if they (i.e., their minds) needed 'space' from each other, just go into another jar far away for awhile; and then hop back in the same jar together when they wanted to be together.  If either scientist had transferred into the human body first, would it have got the same thrill out of kissing the jar that the other was still in?  Other 'body-hopping' spirit/body transferring movies, where people fall in love with the same lover regardless of whose body that lover now 'inhabits' raise this same issue.  But the problem then also seems to be the same for just normal kissing (or other emotionally involved physical affection or touching) in general.  What exactly does the joy of kissing consist of, apart from just the physical pleasure of it, which I will try to show is not the main point or motivation of it?

   And although, I originally wrote this with romantic touching in mind, it also applies, though with different emotions and different sorts of touching, to any sort of affection, whether parent-child, sibling, friends, etc.  One survivor of a commercial plane crash filled with passengers said that as they knew the plane was going down, he and the stranger in the seat next to him held hands.  He survived, the other man did not.  In fact the man and the pilot were the only survivors.  What was comforting or important about their holding hands as opposed to just sitting next to each other?  I think that if it were me in that situation, I might hold the hand of a fellow passenger I felt some sort of bond with, even if just during the flight, but not with just anyone; and for me possibly even only with a woman I felt some sort of bond with, not a man.  But either way, what is it about holding hands in that particular situation that makes it seem understandable for people to do as they think they are about to die or suffer greatly, if they want to, or that makes anyone want to do it?  Or why is it that we want to kiss a child or a friend on the cheek as a sign of affection, as opposed, say, to just telling them you care about them or appreciate them or love them?

   Kissing, embracing, hugging, cuddling, hand-holding -- any general "loving" or affectionate physical contact are generally held to be desirable not only for, and not even basically for, the physical feeling alone (though that is often important to some extent) but for some sort of emotional enjoyment or satisfaction or something else as well.  If the physical feeling were the important thing, we would want to have physical contact with everybody who had good hugging, kissing, hand-holding, etc.  techniques, and people with the right kind of grip, lip texture, hand size and whatever else would go into the physical comfort of such things.  We would seek the best kissers or the best huggers, etc.  Or we would just as soon cuddle up with the right feeling kind of plastic or the correctly shaped hot water bottle or pillow.  But these are not necessarily the people or things we want to cuddle up with, kiss, etc.  So the physical aspect of touch alone, or even in large part, must not be what we are after, at least not generally. Or take 'the Hollywood hug' where people hug each other basically only at the shoulders, with the rest of their bodies as far apart as possible in that position.  I myself am uncomfortable with any kind of frontal hug, even a 'Hollywood' one with anyone I don't feel romantically inclined toward.  I can hug someone from the side or put my arm around their back, standing beside them, but I don't feel inclined to be chest to chest with someone I don't have romantic feelings for.  A 'frontal' hug to me is a romantic sort of thing, not a friendship sort of thing.  But the question here is why a (physical) hug or embrace of either sort gives, or serves as a form of, emotional affection.

   Of course, not all sexual activity, particularly with regard to orgasm or attempts to achieve it require any sort of emotional element.  Masturbation and some intercourse (for example, some cases of sex with a prostitute, sex by a prostitute, sex for the sake of conquest or just physical fun) may be just for the physical release of tension (or for money) and for the accompanying good feeling or whatever non-emotional, psychological feeling might follow.  And there can be touching that feels good without any sort of emotional attachment.  Some people, for example, like having their hair washed at the salon or I used to love having the warm lather put on the back of my neck at the barber's (when they used to shave the back of your neck with a razor) and enjoyed having it cleaned off with the warm, slightly damp towel, even though I had no particular affection for the barber.  Many people enjoy a good massage by a professional or perhaps even a friend whom they have no romantic interest in.  But for me, like with a hug, I would be uncomfortable with a massage like that.  I can give a massage like that, but do not want to receive one.  I consider a massage, like a hug, to be an intimate kind of thing, though I don't know what makes it seem or be that way to me. 

   But as already stated, most people (or at least most civilized people) find that mere physical pleasure is not what they generally seek in seeking affectionate physical contact with another.  They seek some sort of emotional closeness also, or in particular.  A person masturbating probably is mainly or solely interested in the physical aspect, and as one of my students mentioned in a class, the plastic doll (as well as numerous other articles and devices) on the market for that probably would be satisfactory if they felt good.  But they would hardly do for making love.  To find out the person you are enjoyably making out with is only plastic or totally "bionic" or is an android I think would stop most people's making out with that "partner". 

   So then (except in cases for the release of tension, the creation of babies, or the sheer physical pleasure of sexual play) it seems that an (or the) essential aspect of physical or sexual contact is some emotional or mental satisfaction.   Further, except for masturbation, prostitution, just physical pleasure, etc., it is essential that the other person enjoy it too; otherwise it would be like kissing the wall or cardboard.

Now comes the problem:
   Physical contact is important, and important for something which it gives you, but something which is not itself physical.   Why is it great to kiss (or otherwise be physically affectionate or intimate with) someone you love or desire, but not someone you do not, even if they physically feel the same or if the person you do not love or desire feels even better.  How can this be so; or why should it be so? (And it certainly does seem so.) What can you get out of physical contact that is itself not physical?

   Further, suppose there were something that was not physical that could be received from physical contact of a certain sort.   For example, suppose that when you hold and kiss a particular person you get a very warm emotional feeling, a feeling that you do not get except when you are holding and kissing that person.   Now, all there is in contact with you is their body -- not their mind, unless you want to argue, as I do not, that there is some kind of mental contact or ESP when bodies are in certain juxtapositions -- so the warm emotional feeling you get must depend entirely or in part on the physical feeling of their body against yours.  But it seems to me that it cannot be entirely, for surely we could pinpoint all the physical aspects of the way they feel against us -- we could measure their body temperature, pressure, texture, etc.  and we could then construct an inanimate object (or we could find someone else) that could feel, physically, to you exactly the same when you hold it (or him or her) and kiss it (or him or her).  If it were the physical contact alone with the person which gave you the emotional warmth, anything that feels exactly like that should give you the exact same emotional warmth.  But it won't.  Why not? What is it that the physical contact gives that causes emotional warmth yet that is not given by the physical contact itself? Or how can some physical contact cause something that other exactly similar physical contact cannot cause? Is the physical contact really the transmitter or the important factor that it seems?

   And it seems to be the important or essential element because no matter how good someone makes you feel in any other way (for example, through a good, intimate, open talk, or a walk together through the snow on a clear and starry night, or a rousing discussion where each of you, because of the other, reaches new mental heights you never realized yourselves capable of) the emotional feeling is not the same emotional feeling you get from kissing or cuddling.

   But as argued above, it cannot be physical contact alone which gives the emotional feeling.  So it seems then that there is something along with physical contact that is the important thing in causing the emotional factor.  But what? ESP or some sort of mental joining seem to be rather speculative, ad hoc answers; and it would seem funny that they should only occur when you kiss somebody you like, not just anybody you might kiss, or that they should only happen when kissing, etc.  instead of when whispering close together, standing together in a crowded elevator, having the dentist or hygienist examine your teeth, or when giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

   Further, it cannot be the other person's enjoyment of the kiss that is so important (though it is generally important we believe they enjoy the kiss for us to continue enjoying the kiss) here, since the question is why does either of you enjoy it in the first place.  And it cannot be that you enjoy it because he or she enjoys it and he or she enjoys it because you enjoy it; that would give no starting place; you could not enjoy it till he or she did and he or she could not till you did.  Further, if what made kissing so great were that the other person enjoyed it, along with some sort of physical feeling, you should enjoy kissing anyone who enjoyed kissing you and who kissed with the proper technique, pressure, etc.; but you do not.

   And it cannot be just the fact that the other person "accepts" you and is willing to or wanting to kiss you, for (1) the above circularity problem arises again -- you want to kiss them because they want to kiss you; they want to kiss you because you want to kiss them; yet neither of you can want to till the other does, (2) there are probably many people you know who could or would accept you or want to kiss you, some of whom it might physically feel good to kiss and who perhaps even would enjoy kissing you; yet still you do not necessarily want to kiss them, and (3) actual kissing would not then be important -- only knowing the other person wants to kiss you or is willing to kiss you.  This, though, is not the case.  Giving truth serum or a lie detector examination to find out someone wants to kiss you, or just seeing it in their manner and their eyes, or knowing that a prostitute or a lonely or horny person would kiss you isn't exactly an emotionally thrilling thing.  And I do not suspect a person married a short time has any doubt that their spouse will want physical affection from them (generally) -- yet that knowledge does not feel anywhere near the same as does the actual physical embracing, kissing, etc.  itself.

   What it is about, or along with, physical contact that causes it to be so desirable and/or emotionally or mentally satisfying with (only) certain people at certain times, I do not know.  Definitely something, though.


This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.