Today I was listening to a podcast about the use of solitary confinement in our prison systems. It was actually the second podcast I’ve listened to on this topic in the last month. Today’s podcast was an episode of Hidden Brain, a show that always teaches me something about how people think and leaves me wondering about my own mental faculties. The other podcast was an episode of Stuff You Should Know, a show that tackles the origins and developments of stuff ranging from Famine to Hyperloops to Breastfeeding. The hosts are hilarious and I definitely recommend any of their live shows. But I digress.
During the podcast, a researcher who looked at myriad aspects of the US prison system’s use of solitary confinement relayed tons of interesting information from solitary confinement’s origins as a replacement for mental institutions (trading one evil for another?) to the conditions of solitary and how they impact people held there. One anecdote struck me and reinforced a simple piece of advice I received long ago that I want to pass on to our kids and their kids, etc. In the story, the researcher talked about two rival gang members who occupied cells with an adjoined wall. The two gang members entered solitary as sworn enemies but as their time in solitary ran on, they began talking to each other through their cell doors to help pass the team. One day, both cell doors were inadvertently opened at the same time. This is never supposed to happen as the one of the main purposes of solitary is to isolate prisoners from ANY interaction with each other. As soon as the prisoners recognized the doors opening, they reached around the corner of the doorways and held each other’s hand. They were so desperate for human touch that they sprung at the one chance they had to make contact even though these two thugs would have never even thought about holding hands under other conditions. It wasn’t in their realm of thinking as rival gang members or as macho dudes who had an image to uphold.
Here’s the advice I was given: Never underestimate the power of touch, especially during an argument. I know this advice works from experience and I also know it’s really hard to put into practice. The last thing any of us want to do during in argument is reach over to the person who is getting gon our last nerve or failing to listen to our perspective and touch their shoulder or hold their hand to help calm the situation. But it works. It changes the entire dynamic and calms both people down. But don’t reserve this technique only for arguments. As demonstrated in the anecdote above, most of us crave human touch even if we won’t admit it. We also have the hurdle of American understanding of personal space which we essentially define as the state of Texas. It’s a self-imposed cultural hurdle that holds us back from the joy of (appropriate) touch. Just my opinion, but if we got over that as a society, America might make some progress on the happiness quotient.