Human Development: Its Communicative Functions

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Human Development 2002;45:70–94

Touch: Its Communicative Functions
in Infancy
Matthew J. Hertenstein
University of California, Berkeley, Calif., USA

Key Words
Emotion communication W Emotional responses W Mother child
communication W Physical contact W Tactile communication W Tactile perception W Tactile stimulation

Abstract
The communicative functions that the tactile modality serves in infancy have been severely neglected by researchers. The present article highlights the importance of touch by addressing two questions. First, what is communicated to infants by touch from their caregivers? In addition to the common notion that touch regulates arousal levels, it is argued that touch is capable of communicating valenced and discrete emotions as well as specific information. Second, how does meaning come about from the touch that adults administer to infants? This question is addressed by discussing specific qualities and parameters of touch and three mechanisms by which infants gain meaning from touch. Empirical evidence is provided and hypotheses are made regarding each of these questions. Furthermore, a preliminary model of tactile communication is presented based upon the literature on touch, as well as the conceptual framework outlined in the article. Copyright © 2002 S. Karger AG, Basel

Touch has been described as the most fundamental means of contact with the world [Barnett, 1972], and the simplest and most straightforward of all sensory systems [Geldard, 1960]. Many researchers have implicated the importance of touch in several domains of the infant’s life, including social, cognitive, and physical development [e.g., Field, 1988; Greenough, 1990; Hertenstein & Campos, in press; Stack, in press]. However, one crucial, but relatively neglected, area of study involves the communicative functions of touch; researchers have focused almost exclusively on the face and the

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Matthew J. Hertenstein
University of California, Berkeley, 3210 Tolman Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-1650 (USA)
E-Mail mat@socrates.berkeley.edu

voice in infant communication. In the present article, I discuss the communicative functions that the tactile modality serves as it relates to how adults touch infants. Two fundamental questions are addressed. First, what is communicated to infants by touch from their caregivers? In addition to the common notion that touch regulates arousal levels and behavioral state, I argue that touch is capable of communicating valenced and discrete emotions as well as specific information. Second, how does meaning come about from the touch that adults administer to infants? This question is addressed by discussing the physical dimensions of touch, as well as by discussing three mechanisms by which meaning from touch comes about. Finally, I propose a model of caregiver-infant tactile communication and suggest future directions for research. The article is meant to be a heuristic enterprise, rather than a definitive answer to the issues and challenges presented herein.

Although the present article primarily focuses on touch that is administered by adults to infants, it is readily apparent that infants use touch to communicate to their caregivers as well. Nevertheless, I do not address the latter phenomenon as it is beyond the scope of this article.1 Furthermore, I do not discuss the infant massage literature as this has been reviewed elsewhere [for a thorough review, see Field, 1998].

Definitional and Conceptual Issues

Because the present article focuses on two phenomena – touch and communication – and their relations, it is necessary to define and conceptualize these terms. The word ‘touch’ is semantically rich. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has dedicated hundreds of lines to define touch [Reite, 1990]. Unlike other forms of...
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