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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Cyber-Connections — What do they mean to our species?

I really enjoy being part of the cyber world — reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, blogging (obviously), the convenience of email, the incredible speed and efficiency of virtual work. . . . But I have reservations.

Now a new study called “Aero-tactile integration in speech perception” — say that three times fast — published in Nature has validated my reservations. What if cyber-only connections completely eclipse face-to-face friendships, work relationships, and even healing? (I’ve heard about virtual therapists and doctors who diagnose and prescribe over the Internet.)

Most people would agree that facial expression, gesture, and tone give meaning to words. And previous studies have shown that, in limited circumstances where people are aware of what’s being studied, “tactile input” affects comprehension. What’s new about the Nature study is its conclusion that people in general listen and hear and communicate better face-to-face.

Researchers Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick (from the Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia and Haskins Laboratories, New Haven, Connecticut) studied people who were unaware that they were being tested, and they found that these people integrated “naturalistic tactile information” — the puffs of air we emit when we speak a hard consonant — into their comprehension of what was being said, affecting what they understood, much in the same way as they integrated visual information.

But what about other kinds of physical contact? I’ve always felt as though I listen with my skin. People can pull their faces into pleasing expressions and manipulate their voices to sound soft and non-confrontational. But, in my experience, skin-listening never lies. What is skin listening? For me, it’s a feeling of literally being shoved or burned or suffocated when somebody is being confrontational or controlling. It is a feeling as soft as a baby's cheek or expansive or like being gently rocked in warm water when someone is being supportive or present with no agenda other than being there.

“We're whole-body perceiving machines,” said researcher Gick when he was interviewed about the study on NPR.
Amen, Mr. Gick. I don't want to imagine a world where cyber-only hearing becomes the norm.

(The study appears in Nature, 462, November 26, 2009.)
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