This text was prepared for a practical workshop, and is partially a continuation of Everyday Movement of Expanded Body.
This time, the question is simpler. Sure, with all the technology in your pocket you can write mails and send messages or call your loved ones. But what if there is no one right next to you. There is no one who could hug you.
Could you hug yourself?
The naive self hugging
A quick web search shows a simple instruction on hugging yourself. It’s exactly what you think of first, when you hear «hugging yourself».
For the sake of the experiment, try it out.
It feels alright. Not great. More like a defensive stance rather than a hug. Something is amiss. Perhaps, because the movement and stance is so similar to an embrace between two people, the absence of the partner becomes painfully obvious.
We can try to find other positions, hugging ourselves on different areas of the body to come closer to the feeling of a hug. Try using both hands to touch the same area of your body; try touching your body asymmetrically, connecting seemingly unrelated parts. Finally, try touching your body parts in a combination you never experienced before, such as touching the inner thigh with one hand and your shoulder with the other. Continue searching for new and unexplored combinations. This excercise is great fun in itself and refreshes your bodily perception.
The position that turned out to be closest to a hug was what my four year old flatmate does when she over excerts herself socially or emotionally.
This position is a good example of self-referencing the sensory organs.
Self referencing the sensory organs.
In contrast to the other sensory organs, the organs of touch can sense themselves. While we don’t see our eyes, hear our ears, smell our nostrils or taste our tastebuds, we can actually touch our touch sensors with our other touch sensors. As hands have the most neurons dedicated to them in the somatosensory areas of the brain, they play a big role in how we perceive our surroundings.
Now let them touch themselves and see what happens.
Looks familiar, doesn’t it? The prayer hands position is found in many cultural and religious practices - in christianity, hinduism and buddhism, in yoga and in meditation.
While I have found no scientific literature on the (neuro)physiological characteristics of this position, when I put my non-religious hands together, I do feel a calming effect. Connecting the finger tips or even just some finger tips feels similar.
A similar effect can be achieved by touching alternately the other neurologically well connected areas of your body, such as your face, lips, tongue, nose, ears, feet, anus and sexual organs. Try touching them in combinations that you don’t remember experiencing before.
(Pictures of strange positions)
Dance and hug
A hug is for the most part a fixed position. Except for the initiation and the decoupling periods, the hug is static. Try to add some movement to it and you will be misunderstood as trying to turn it into sexual activity or dance.
Dance was always a social event - you danced as a pair or part of the group. Social dance is about closeness and distance, embrace and evasion. The common way of present-day dance that can be experienced in discos and clubs is less social. It can be described more like an assortment of individual dancers, that sometimes pair up or form groups.
There is one simple experiment that tests the boundaries between self hug, dance and sexuality. Put on some music that you like to dance to and dance like you always would. Now place your hands somewhere on your body, while still dancing. Don’t actively move your hands, let them rest where you placed them. Then slow down your dancing until you just stand straight, while still having your hands touch your body.
What was the sensation?
A dance with your hands on your body immediately becomes more sexual and more expressive, while just standing still in the same position may feel similar to a hug.
The first embrace we experience is that of our mothers. They provide warmth, food, security and attention, they provide everything a newborn may need for quite some time.
So, a baby has to be in close proximity of their mother at all times. In many cultures the babies are carried close to the body, on the back or on the front.
(Pics of african women with kids on their back)
There is considerable evidence that such close relationship is beneficial for the baby and promotes attachment between infant and caregiver.
A similar tradition there is a custom of swaddling the babies tightly in a way that restricts movement. A meta-analysis on swaddling found that is claimed to have a similar calming effect as wrapping the baby close to your body.
Heavy blankets are used in clinics as a way to calm anxious patients. Research indicates 63% reported lower anxiety after use of a weighted blanket as well as positive effects on insomnia(PDF). In recent years, a lot of companies and crowdfunding efforts have sprung up to offer weighted blankets to customers.
Similarly, weighted or pneumatically operated compression vests and jackets exist, that exert deep pressure stimulation on the wearer, with a similar calming effect. They are marketed mostly as calming devices for on the go use to autistic and ADHD patients. And dogs.
With this in mind it seems that even such activities as camping may not only provide health benefits through physical exertion, exposure to nature and clean air, but also through the weight of the backpack as well as the movement restriction of the sleeping bag.
There are reports that practitioners of bondage get calmer after a bondage session and of corsets being good for your mental health.
Quite a lot of non-mainstream sexual practices, including BDSM, vinyl, latex and leather fetish have elements of tightening of the chest and movement restriction in them.
Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., writes regarding BDSM:
The results revealed that both bottoms and tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states. Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality” (Dietrich, 2003), which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions. Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. We believe that these pleasurable altered states of consciousness might be one of the motivations that people have for engaging in BDSM activities.
Hug is a gegenseitige vulnerability and immobility, as such the hugger is restricting and being restricted.
If two or more persons direct their attention to the same thing, if a child shows you a stone she found, if your date points out a wrongly worded item on the restaurant menu, if you watch a film together, you experience joint attention.
Joint attention is of great importance during childhood, as a way of learning language, communication, empathy and social structures.
Joint attention can be triadic or dyadic. In the first case two individuals look at the object, while understanding that they both look at it. During the dyadic joint attention the individuals themselves are focus of attention, such as mother and child smiling at each other or a typical conversation between two people.
Dyadic joint attention without verbalisation appears in dance and martial arts, especially those with the focus at reading your partner such as tai chi or aikido. Contact Improvisation, the dance form where you can be seen as the manifestation of purely physical joint attention through movement. A hug then is an example of physical joint attention through non moving presence.
Marina Abramovic, the pop queen of performance art, is also working with joint attention:
Though she can be criticized for guru-like demeanor, exploitation of volunteers and … she did build a successful career through using attention and guided attention in art.
Through joint attention, togetherness is created. Take a moment to sit still with someone, without communicating through words, eyes or movement, just paying attention to the existence of each other. Suddenly, you are together in time.
The practice of ‘a minute of silence’ has elements of joint attention, though the attention is not pointed into the present but to a different cause.
The closest you can get to achieving joint attention without a counterpart is probably through techniques of self-attention such as meditation, mindfulness and prayer.
Can we hog yourselves?
Sure, you can try. Have a chest tightening device around your body, with hands in a prayer position and your attention turned to yourself sounds like the closest thing you can - mechanically - get to a hug.
Or just find somebody to hug. And hug them.
vulnerability of hug