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The Experience of Touch and the Development of Self


The Experience of Touch and the Development of Self

July 30, 2022

Skin is the largest sense organ that humans possess (Brennan & Loev, 1998).  Our skin is what delineates and makes evident our subjectivity from another’s subjectivity (Harris, 1998; Mitchell, 2002).  Anzieu (1989) theorized about the skin ego which he described as “the original parchment which preserves, like palimpsest, the erased, scratched-out, written over first outlines of an ‘original’ pre-verbal writing made up of traces upon the skin” (p. 105).  The skin ego functions in three central ways: (1) as a containing, unifying “envelope” for the self, (2) as a shielding barrier for the psyche, and (3) as a “filter for exchanges and a surface of inscription for the first traces, a function which makes representation possible” (Anzieu, 1989, p. 98).  The establishment of the perimeter of safety can be experienced through the development of skin.  The experience of touch and the inherent relational context of touch have profound effects on one’s developing sense of self throughout the lifespan.

It is the sense of touch that enables us to understand the very boundaries of ourselves.  The formation of a sense of ourselves as separate from others begins, in the most literal sense, with touch (e.g., Brennan & Loev, 1998; Sunderland, 2004).  Touch, before all else, is the primary, non-verbal way of relating that takes place between an infant and her mother.  From the moment of birth, and even while in utero (Piontelli, 1992; Wrye & Welles, 1994), touch is the conduit through which feelings are communicated and experienced.  The regulation of affect among the mother-infant dyad is vital in understanding the formation and maintenance of subsequent affectional bonds in the infant’s current and future life (Bowlby, 1979).  Hence, the initial patterns of physical interactions that exist between infant and mother predict the ways in which the developing daughter will relate both physically and psychically to people outside of the integral family system (Brennan & Loev, 1998).  Psychoanalysts Wrye and Welles (1994) explored the unconscious fantasies associated with the intrauterine world:

Analysts and patients alike have unconscious fantasies about the intrauterine experience before birth, about the  fetus enveloped in the body fluids of the mother.  Both have pleasurable and painful inchoate memories; we call them ‘body loveprints.’  Repressed to a greater or lesser extent, body loveprints are remnants of the earliest bodily contacts, expressed through the vast preoccupation of mother and child with body fluids (urine, milk, feces, mucus, saliva) in the first year or two of the child’s life.  (Wrye & Welles, 1994, p. xiii)

This conceptualization of intrauterine experiences and the memories of early touch connect with the budding research in attachment and reflective functioning (e.g., Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002).

Stack and Muir (1992) conducted research on physical contact and its impact on the development of babies.  They found that during face-to-face interactions with adults, five-month-old infants are prone to smile and gaze more when they have been actively engaged through gentle and loving touch.  Touch facilitates physical, cognitive, and social development within the first year of life.  Moreover, the lack of physical connection can have deleterious affects on a newborn child.  Rene Spitz (1946) observed that infants who were raised by “delinquent” young mothers in a penal institution were better off than infants who were provided with sufficient nutrition in hygienic foundling homes.  Harlow’s (1958) “surrogate mother” experiments on neonatal monkeys concluded that “contact comfort,” (Brennan & Loev, 1998, p. 401) a component of mother-infant bonding, was vital to the primate infant’s growth and development.

John Bowlby theorized that infants possess an innate attachment plan designed to make certain that close proximity with their primary caregiver will consistently ensue.  Physical proximity as well as physical touch serves as “the infant’s most tangible, concrete indicator of safety” (Brennan & Loev, 1998, p. 410).  As such, establishing physical contact is the ultimate form of proximity seeking, a central concept in attachment theory (e.g., Bowlby, 1979).

Ainsworth, Bell, and Stayton (1971) created a laboratory-based assessment model in which attachment behavior could be observed.  The Strange Situation, a 20-minute procedure in which the mother and infant participate in a series of increasingly stressful relational encounters, (including two separations) resulted in the identification of three primary attachment groups of mother-infant dyads.  The attachment categories included: secure infants, ambivalent or anxious-resistant infants, and anxious-avoidant infants.  Ainsworth et al. (1971) found, through the use of the Strange Situation model, that affectionate and loving maternal handling of the infant was inextricably associated with secure attachment style at year one.  Conversely, abrupt and unpleasant bodily contact with an infant within the first few months of life was found to result in avoidantly attached babies.  Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) research not only uncovered the complexities of attachment categories, it also made the distinction between the types of touch relayed to the infant from her primary caregiver.  The research found that the quality of touch rather than the quantity of touch is the primary ingredient in the formation of secure attachments (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991).

Mary Main’s research (1990) further illustrated the centrality of touch throughout the lifespan.  Main’s work in the attachment arena established a cross-generational continuity in aversion to physical contact.  Main found that infants who are not touched or whose mothers were rejecting of them in a physical way from the beginning of life cease to desire physical contact, no matter how stressful the circumstances become.  Furthermore, Main concluded that there is a positive correlation between parental aversion to physical contact and a parent’s felt rejection by her own parents during childhood (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M. & Stayton, D. J. (1971). Individual differences in strange situation behavior of one-year-olds. In H. R. Schaffer (Ed.), The origins of human social relations (pp. 17-57). London: Academic Press.

Ainsworth, M. D. S. & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333-341.

Anzieu, D. (1989). The skin ego: A psychoanalytic approach to the self. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Brennan, K. A., Wu, S., & Love, J. (1998). Adult romantic attachment and individual differences in attitudes toward physical contact in the context of adult romantic relationships. In J.A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 394-428). New York: Guilford Press.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

Harlow, H. E. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Harris, A. (1998). Psychic envelopes and sonorous baths: Siting the body in relational theory and clinical practice. In L. Aron & F. S. Anderson (Eds.), Relational perspectives on the body (pp. 39-64). Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Main, M. (1990). Parental aversion to infant-initiated contact is correlated with the parent’s own rejection during childhood: The effects of experience on signals of security with respect to attachment. In K. E. Barnard & T. B. Brazelton (Eds.), Touch: The foundation of experience (pp. 461-495). Madison, CT: International University Press.

Main, M., Kaplan, N. & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50(1-2), 66-104.

Mitchell, S. (2002). Can love last? The fate of romance over time. New York: W. W. Norton.

Piontelli, A. (1992). From fetus to child: An observational and psychoanalytic study. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Spitz, R. (1946). Anaclytic depression. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 313-342.

Sunderland, M. (2004). The neurobiology of attachment, touch and the body in early development. In K. White (Ed.), Touch: Attachment and the body (pp. 57-58). London: Karnac Books.

Wrye, H. K. & Welles, J. K. (1994). The narration of desire: Erotic transferences and countertransferences. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

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