Monday, September 24, 2012

The Sensual Writer: Touch vs. Feel

Touch vs. Feel
by Lisa Lickel
Our senses: we rattle them off, memorized, like vowels: taste, touch, see, hear, smell…but what do we really understand, or even appreciate about them?
I divide “touch” from “feel” similarly to sight/vision: like sight, touch is the top layer of our sense, the first impression, so to speak, of the perception. “Feel” goes deeper. It’s the sensation caused by the touch, and our reaction to it, whether instinctual or controlled. “Feel” here borders on emotional – not “how are you feeling,” but “what does that feel like?” The question asks for your response to the sense of the touch.
Somatosensory. That’s the big word that explains how our nervous system functions. Our skin is basically a sensor receptor, with certain touchpoints more sensitive than others. We have nerves around our internal organs as well, so humans are barraged by stimuli constantly. Touch is also a chemical reaction: hormones, pathogens, food byproducts all circulate in our blood. Chemoreceptors measure these levels, such as salt or sugar levels, and send signals to the medulla – the chemoreceptor zone: I'm thirsty, I need to eat, I need to throw up. How can we stand it? How can we sort out the natural feelings from the danger signs?
Perhaps that is the layer that drives up the tension in your story. Similarly to the ability to see, we are given the ability to experience life tactually. But how can that translate to our writing?
We are familiar with how certain objects feel to us. Everyone regularly experiences a choice of sensations, whether in our personal clothing preference and other lifestyle accoutrements. In fact, our lifestyle is the biggest subliminal indicator of our ability to handle discomfort, pain, where and how we seek pleasure.  A common reaction to feathers brush across our skin is a slight muscle tension and a spasm at the tingle/tickle. We know how sand feels, how ice, glass, metal, silk, paper, liquid, warmth, heat, the touch of another human’s skin feels. Many of these things are recognizable in some fashion or another. We put our reaction to them in two general categories, with multiple sub-categories: Safe, Dangerous. Safe can subgenerate into pleasant, comfortable, acceptable, known, desirous, and so forth. Dangerous subgenerates into painful, uncomfortable, frightening. The automatic reaction is to move toward the safe touch and to avoid the dangerous one. Natural, right?
The twists come when these sensory inputs and reactions get muddled for whatever reason you throw at your characters. Anesthesia stops the input; but paresthesia is uncontrollable stimulus either from within or without. What about characters who seek out dangerous stimuli on purpose? We call that desire unnatural. How will those unnatural desires affect the decision and actions/reactions of your characters? What reactions are instinctive; which are controllable? What about the diseases and conditions that either permanently or temporarily halt or overstimulate nervous reaction? Hansen’s disease is only one case to explore. Mystics who have learned phenomenal control over themselves are another.
Perception of what we touch, or what is touching us, often depends upon other of the main senses to categorize, understand, and react to what is happening. I can feel liquid, but I can’t put a name or react to the liquid without using other senses. If I can taste it, smell it, see it, or even hear it, that data input all works together to help me decipher the liquid. Is it warm, cold, viscous? Is it splashing on me or dripping on me or running on me? The temperature helps me determine danger or safety, but what is my reaction to an unknown? Am I drawn to it, or avoid it? If I am hiking long-distance and feel moisture on the back of my neck, feel drops rolling down my ribs, I reasonably assume I'm sweating, no matter the temperature of my environment. I am working, I am warm, my body responds. I don't have the need to check either by sight or feel. But what about this: I am sitting in a park, reading. Maybe I hear something out of place, maybe it's part of my muse. Moments later, a warm dribble trickling down my shoulder may be the first sign of something unusual happening. The movement is slow, unpleasant. It’s not raining. I sniff: sweet but not pleasant—vinegary; I look over and see dark red and the visual sensation triggers the smell of rust. I’m not even aware of the cut yet as my nerves are shocked to numbness at the point of the wound site. I’m not an expert in the medical field. I do not expect blood in this place at this time, but it takes more than the sense of touch to perceive the presence of blood. What should my or my character’s natural reaction be?
Your characters can also adjust to the sensory input, much like developing a callous for stringed instrument players or dancers. We can learn to sift and sort through our expected reactions until we are comfortable, such as jumping into a swimming pool or lake with water that feels cold. Eventually we adjust. We reflexively turn off the danger signs. Here’s your chance to add tension and conflict to the character’s story arc, and best of all, a twist for your reader.
Add to the noticing exercise in the first lesson on vision. Take out your box of objects again. This time, keep your eyes closed and examine them individually with your hands. Afterward, jot notes on the experience. Would you have recognized any of them simply by touch? How did they feel? Describe the sensations in a notebook for later use.
Remember: the more emotion you can elicit from your readers, the deeper they will be drawn into your world. We'll explore Hearing vs. Listening on October 15.

The excerpt from my upcoming mystery, MESSAGE OF MAYHEM, with the added sensual layer of "touch."
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  1. Hope my readers feel what I'm trying to convey with my writing. Though I write topics about weight loss, I'm still hoping that I have encouraged my readers.

  2. Touch is one of the senses that is more difficult to convey via the written word, and, as a result, perhaps neglected more than some of the other senses. Thanks for the reminder to include it!

  3. We often use "I shivered" or something, but that's really on a reaction - it's not the sensation itself, and it's amazing how much more you can become a part of the story when you are close enough to feel someone's breath on the back on your neck...