I’ve come across the idea of human connection a few times in the last few weeks and, now more than ever, it seems to be a good thing to be talking about.
My interest was sparked by watching a fantastic talk by Artscapes UK about the importance of touch through art history. A fascinating addition to the talk was having neuroscientist Dr Helena Boschi alongside art historian Annabel Howard.
The essence of what Dr Boschi described through the talk is how humans are very sensitive to and aware of touch, and how touch triggers the release a cocktail of ‘feel-good’ hormones such as Oxytocin, Dopamine, Serotonin and noradrenaline in our brains. Incredibly, the neural response from actual touch, and from viewing artworks depicting touch, such as the tender embrace in Rodin’s The Kiss, is the same.
Even more pertinently, these neurochemically-induced feelings of human connection can be elicited even without touch. In the talk Howard and Boschi focused on possibly the most famous image of this, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; the incredible power of God’s pointing finger is separated from Adam’s limply extended arm by the smallest of distances, and yet there is a visceral sense of movement from one to the other. A more prosaic version of this is sending someone something they can touch, like a postcard.
The second time I have recently come across this idea of human connection, or rather the tensions created when it goes wrong, was reading Natasha Ali’s fantastic short story One Minute in the Brain of Someone Sad. While the steady beat of a countdown keeps the pace up, the story’s magic comes through the steady accretion of physical contrasts. The narrator addresses the reader in the first line, her easy tone immediately establishing an intimacy at odds with the friends who don’t understand her — I say ‘her’, but it could be anyone — and particularly with ‘him’, standing apart and secluded. Likewise, the physical lightness of the bridge, the ‘old golden-beige stone piled together in a very pretty pattern’, contrasts viscerally with the ‘ink black’ of the other side, and the cold water below. Throughout, we are in constant uncertainty as to off which side of the parapet she will jump.
Soon though, the physical becomes mental. We understand more of her story and see how her facade of rationality and control begins to give way to a woozy panic. As outrage bubbles through, the ‘bad side of the bridge’ becomes a metaphor. She must choose whether to go down or go up. The final ambivalence is that while the narrator always has the power to make the choice herself, her thoughts, and the enticing escape from her memories and his rejection offered by the dark side, question the very contrasts that seemed so clear before: ‘Cold […] doesn’t mean bad. It looks better than the alternative.’
Ali’s story delicately speaks of the need for human connection and, perhaps, both encourages a cathartic release of feelings of loneliness and rejection, and acts as a cautionary tale to the reader to protect themselves from physical and mental abuses.
The final thought I had on this idea of touch, and its essential function in human connection, brings to mind a climactic scene in Never Let Me Go, which I wrote about in my undergrauate dissertation on the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. Tommy, overcome with a sense of existential horror and dread, runs away from Kathy, his best friend. Finally he stops and stands in the middle of a muddy field, screaming up at the night sky. Buffeted by winds, Kathy runs to him and gives him a hug.
He tried to shake me off, but I kept holding on, until he stopped shouting […] Then I realised he too had his arms around me. And we stood together like that, at the top of the field, for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us being swept away into the night.
This scene encapsulates my dissertation’s main point; although the night may be dark, and our fundamental sense of connection with the world ultimately ‘illusory’ (in the words of the Swedish Academy), there is still much value in making and nurturing these connections, in and of themselves.
Artscapes UK’s conclusion was that the body can play an active role in keeping us happy and calm during lockdown or other potential times of struggle; just simply doing something, whether that’s ironing or a passionate kiss, will perk us up. So will looking at, or reading about, beautiful images of human connection. In current times this is more relevant than ever.
For myself, I would highly recommend reading Natasha Ali’s short story. I would also start getting excited about Ishiguro’s newest novel, Klara and the Sun, out in March. Finally, I would suggest you check out Teeny Breaks, a great little chrome extension which gives you a helpful tip, backed by scientific research, each time you open a new tab.
Let me know if you found this interesting. Till next time!