The blind would argue that hearing is more important than vision. The deaf may say otherwise. But what it’s like not to have a sense of touch?
Neurologists often see patients who have profound proprioceptive deficits in their arms and legs. The usual causes are chemotherapy induced neuropathy or autoimmune acute sensory neuronopathy, which may or may not be associated with a malignancy. Neuronopathy syndrome can be devastating. We can empathize with these patients, understand how disabling their disorder is, but we usually do not ask what it’s like to live without touch.
Jonathan Cole recently explored all of this in a book titled “Losing Touch: A Man Without His Body.” It was written in collaboration with Ian Waterman, who contracted acute sensory neuronopathy, presumed to be viral, in 1971 at the age of 19 and never recovered. He noted that for the first 12 years of his illness, no medical professional asked how it felt. One must use vision to compensate for the loss of sensory feedback. This can be mentally exhausting. For most people, walking is effortless and a wonderful time to think and reflect. Ian Waterman says, “I don’t get lost in walking. I concentrate all the way through. If I daydream, I would fall over.” If he moves his arm, he is able to return at the original position in only one of two ways: Looking at or finding the relatively warm spot where his arm was initially resting. He can feel hot and cold but is unaware of the position of his limbs. He must sleep with the lights on, and in a power outage, he is completely helpless.
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