Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Skin as a Social Organ - preamble: random thoughts on spas

The paper, The skin as a social organ
Previous introductory blogpost to this series.

Let us begin with the abstract:
"In general, social neuroscience research tends to focus on visual and auditory channels as routes for social information. However, because the skin is the site of events and processes crucial to the way we think about, feel about, and interact with one another, touch can mediate social perceptions in various ways. This review situates cutaneous perception within a social neuroscience framework by discussing evidence for considering touch (and to some extent pain) as a channel for social information. Social information conveys features of individuals or their interactions that have potential bearing on future interactions, and attendant mental and emotional states. Here, we discuss evidence for an affective dimension of touch and explore its wider implications for the exchange of social information. We consider three important roles for this affective dimension of the cutaneous senses in the transmission and processing of social information: first, through affiliative behavior and communication; second, via affective processing in skin–brain pathways; and third, as a basis for intersubjective representation."
Preamble, random thoughts
I have always thought that as human primates, we have relegated social grooming to mostly symbolic activities, like hair dressing and childrearing and pet ownership. For whatever reason, maybe a prudish attitude, we marginalized social grooming for stress reduction off into the edges of human social existence. I'm speaking as a North American, of course.. we don't have much tradition here: everything that could possibly be medicalized has been medicalized, and if it isn't "medical" then it's "alternative." If it's "alternative" then it isn't "medicine," not scientific medicine, anyway.

Here, spas are places where rich women (usually women) (rich by overall planetary standards) go, spend big bucks to be wrapped in fluffy dressing gowns, have their nails done, hair done, faces done, and maybe a massage, maybe some unwanted hair removal, all the while listening to piped-in tinkly chime or else flute muzak. Spas here might sell stress reduction, but don't kid yourself, they are mainly businesses that exist to make money; they do not exist to attract or accommodate the general public of all ages the way free or low cost spas or springs do elsewhere in the world.

Health spas have a long history, all over the world. Spas are completely cross cultural. They existed long before modern medicine, i.e., somehow the human species found ways to hold itself together given the complete dearth of modern scientific medicine prior to the 20th century. Not that I'd ever want to go back to the bad old days before nice clean surgical repairs for busted appendix and other things that could and did kill lots of people, but... just this: I yearn for there to be a respectable place for this sort of wellness-centered care and attention here on the North American continent. A place for humans to gather and feel socially connected on the outside, while feeling completely enhanced on the inside, both at exactly the same time. Unfragmented. Indigenous. I can't think of anything else, on earth, that would help one feel that close to heaven.

I can see it.. how could it not be a wonderfully restorative experience?
Old Roman spa in the UK
Anywhere hot water bubbled up from the planet, it makes sense that people would gather there, to soak away their problems, or talk about and solve them - dis-solve them. Maybe they hired the locals to wrap them in hot mud cloths, scrape them off later with carefully nuanced stone scrapers. Massage them with oil. Let them soak in the springs again after. How could anyone still feel stressed after spending all day at a spa? Used appropriately, in a properly boundaried fashion, how could spa attendance not be health-preserving, health-maintaining?

[Edit: A twitter contact sent me this message: "North Africa has the wonderfully civilized Hammam which is a weekly tradition for everyone young and old" and this link to a blogpost about a spa in Morocco, "The Public Hammam – as experienced by a female member of staff…"]

(There is a long spa tradition in Sweden, apparently: I like to imagine that the authors of this paper are familiar with the local spas, and attend regularly to relieve themselves of all the stress associated with publishing papers.)

Spas developed a bit of a reputation over time. Too bad. Ruined it for any of us who descended from immigrants who had cheerfully escaped to leave it all behind.

I became a PT.
European (and maybe British, to some extent) physiotherapy grew out of elements of the spa tradition. Certainly massage therapy did. Something in me has always yearned for sensible, above-board repackaging of physical human contact for well-being - human primate social grooming. I've always been interested in providing human primate social grooming as a way to spend life productively on my way to exiting it at the other end, and going back to the exact same way I was before I was ever born. I managed to get there, wherever "there" is. Papers like this one really massage my confirmation bias, I've got to say.

Next, the introduction, and looking up some references, one of my second favourite things to do in the whole world.

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