One of my favorite researchers is Harry Harlow. Harry Harlow completed a number of experiments demonstrating the importance of touch and contact for human flourishing. The idea touch is important for the development of people seems obvious today but when Dr. Harlow proposed the idea he was battling against a powerful force in the field of psychology. That force was the predominant school of behaviorism that believed the main reason a mother is important for a child’s development is because she is a primary food source. Hugs and other comforting acts of human touch were not as important as the fact the child was provided nourishment and therefore had developed behaviors that elicited that reward. Even early attachment research saw behavior as simply a way to keep the care taker interested in caring for the child. Certainly, a comforting touch had no benefits for healthy development? If mom was not a primary food source she would be inconsequential to the development of the child. Harry Harlow believed there was something more the child needed from its mother that kept her from being reduced to nothing more than a food source.
Harlow tested his theory by taking baby rhesus macaque monkeys and putting them in an environment where they experienced two types of manufactured mothers. With the first surrogate mother the baby macaques had access to a wire mother monkey that was not soft or comfortable to embrace. This pretend mother was not warm or comforting in any way and simply served as a food source. This cold wire mother nourished and fed the baby monkey but provided no source of comfort, had no warmth to it, and was not something the monkey could easily embrace. Another surrogate mother was placed in the cage as well. This mother was made of wire, wrapped in a soft blanket, and kept warm through a light bulb installed in its center. No food was provided by this surrogate mother; it was merely a comforting warm source of touch. Harlow found the monkeys preferred the touch of the warm surrogate over the food distributing uncomfortable wire mother. He did further studies (Some very controversial) in which he isolated the baby monkeys from any social interactions with others and found these monkeys, even though they were provided food, became withdrawn, unhealthy, and displayed elements of psychosis after long periods of isolation. His experiments demonstrated social creatures needed to experience connections with others. In particular, they needed the touch and soothing contact of another warm creature or else they became very unhealthy and some even died. He successfully created the groundwork for demonstrating the importance of hugging and caressing children for their healthy development. More importantly he demonstrated you cannot reduce the role of a caretaker to be nothing more than a food source!
What’s most striking about Dr. Harlow’s work is he discovered rhesus monkeys understood the rudimentary elements of love, connection, touch, and the need for social connection. There was something about them that reflected interdependence and the basic need to love and be loved. These are the same things people need as well. I’m not proposing human beings are nothing more than complex rhesus monkeys but I am inferring what we see in this lower class of species is profoundly important for human beings as well. Why do humans and monkeys share a need for connectivity and what might be inferred to be the basic elements of love discovered in such lovely and cute creatures? Harlow proved the monkeys did not gravitate to the food producing wire mother, they preferred one in which they could feel comforted even without food. They preferred the one that seemed to love them, even if it was an artificial and very basic example of loving touch. People are the same. We prefer the softer and more loving comfort we get even at the cost of basic nourishment. You can feed a person’s belly but they will still die of loneliness. The heart still needs love. Where does this sense come from? Why did the monkeys need it and why do we need it? Here are my thoughts.
God created the world out of his pure love and infused it with the seeds of perfect love. We don’t always see this perfect love, sin has made it a place in which the rule of existence is conquer or be conquered, yet sometimes we see the need to love and give love emerge from the simplest things. It might be in the social nature of rhesus monkeys or in the desire of a child to love a mother and be loved by her. Love is inherent to creation and if we ignore it or try and push it away it becomes deadly for us and the other creatures of this world. This primal sense of love can never be pushed away because as the Christian scriptures teach, God himself is love. If God is love and God created the world out of love than all of creation in whatever way possible bursts forth with some rudimentary understanding and expression of love. Human beings are the capstone of creation and therefore we have the potential to be the greatest expression of God’s love when we interact with one another. When we ignore love, refuse to receive it or give it away, the very thing at our core explodes and we die a lonely death.
Sure, we aren’t rhesus monkeys, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the social comfort these animals needed. As a creature created to be more than an animal, our need for love, comfort, touch, and relationships is even more profound. Live and love, it’s what you were meant to do and without doing so is to ignore the greatest potential God has placed in the human heart. Even a monkey knows that!