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Pop!Tech: Nina Jablonski – our skin makes us human

Anthropologist Nina Jablonski praises us as an audience for being, “an exceptional and alert group of primates.” (I will be more exceptional and alert with a bit more coffee.) She invites us to begin her talk by being quite primate and spend twenty seconds touching the skin of someone else in the room. She’s unsurprised when many people don’t participate in this activity – we’ve moved away from this behavior in human society, but it’s incredibly important to ourprimate ancestors.

Humans encounter the world primarily through our vision, folowed by our touch, hearing and, least, from our sense of smell. There’s a huge amount of our brain dedicated to processing touch information. She points out that our skin is quite remarkable – it’s very sensitive, mostly naked, comes in a range of colors, is often sweaty, can be decorated and adorned.

“We gather an enormous amount of information about our environment from our skin,” especially the skin of our hands. Hands are equipped with an amazing range of nerve endings that interpret pain, deep touch, temperature.

The sensory homunculus, above, shows us how sensitive our sense of touch is in different parts of the body. Our hands end up enormous, as do our lips and tongue, because they’re so sensitive and have such a complex range of sensory nerves.

Primates touch each other a great deal and that touch isn’t random. Mothers and children bond through touch. She reminds us of Harry Harlow‘s experiments with baby monkeys, who gravitated to warm cloth mothers that didn’t give them food rather than to wire mothers that provided food. Adult primates groom, as a form of social bonding. Jablonski suggests that we, as primates, groom as well – massages, facials, and other forms of touch.

The range of human skin color isn’t randomly distributed over the planet. We see more dark-skinned people near the equators, more light-skinned people near the poles. Skin color tends to be proportionate to the ultraviolet radiation our ancestors experienced. A dark-skinned person living in the north tends to have difficulty producing sufficient vitamin D, while light-skinned people transplanted to equatorial climes have a variety of problems dealing with the strength of radiation.

“Humans are self-decorating apes.” Humans use cosmetics to highlight certain features, most of which are sexually attractives. Tattoos tend to be affixed to signify life events. Neither of these phenomena is new – cosmetics are at least 4000 years old, while tattoos date as early as five thousand years ago. An “ice man” found in the Tyrolean Alps, where he’d been preserved for five thousand years, had several tattoos, which might have been decorative or theraputic.

“Stripped of the skin, we really are all alike,” she tells us. When we lived in bands, we touched constantly, and measured each other’s emotions and feelings through the skin that’s evolved over 40 million years. “Before you use that next emoticon… think about how important it is not to forfeit your primateness.” She urges us to hug someone before the day ends: “Humans, like our primate relatives, need to touch one another. This is truly what it means to be human.”

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