Sense of Touch: Stories about the power of contact

This week, we're presenting two stories about the power of touch.

Part 1: While working on a book about the sense of touch, science journalist Sushma Subramanian experiments with haptic technology to connect with her long-distance fiance.

Sushma Subramanian is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Mary Washington, where she advises the staff of the campus newspaper, The Blue & Gray Press. She is also a freelance magazine writer focusing on the intersection of science and culture. Her most recent stories are about the neuroscience behind her struggles to relearn her forgotten first language and the ongoing legal battle surrounding the unethical Guatemala syphilis experiments. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Foreign Policy and many other publications. Her book on the sense of touch is forthcoming.

Part 2: Nick Andersen’s type 1 diabetes begins to affect his dating life.

Nick Andersen is an audio producer and podcaster, based right here in beautiful Cambridge. When he's not telling awkwardly personal stories on a stage, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking. A Detroit-area native and a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he promised his colleagues at WGBH’s MASTERPIECE that he would definitely mention them in his next public storytelling bio. He works there. He mentioned it. (You’re welcome, Bruce.) Nick also produces the brand-new podcast, Ministry of Ideas, which you should definitely listen to.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Sushma Subramanian

We break up the weekend before I move.  My boyfriend Kartik and I have gotten into, yet, another argument, this time about where to go eat.  He has suggested a meaty Chinese restaurant on the lower east side of New York.  I’m vegetarian so my interpretation was he does not care about me. 

Yes, it was stupid but it was just like many others that we've been having over months ever since I had been offered a job teaching journalism at a university south of DC.  Kartik had supported my decision to take the position but, as the move came closer, it became clear he was becoming reticent about joining me.  And we had been talking about marriage so this spooked me. 

That’s what our argument was really about.  It was not just that I couldn’t eat Dandan noodles. 

About twelve hours after we have decided to go our separate ways, I call my parents to tell them the sad news, that Kartik and I are no more.  They also know about our plans to get married and they have told their relatives in India all about it.  They have been freaking out about arranging my marriage ever since I was twenty-three.  I’m thirty-two now and they're convinced that Kartik is my final option, and I’m blowing it. 

“What will we tell everyone?” they ask.

At the end of this conversation, I am exhausted not just from the conversation itself but also because of weeks of back and forth with Kartik and a decade of familial pressure.  So I turn to Kartik and I say, “Let’s just do it.  Let’s get engaged.” 

He looks really sorry for me, and he says, “Okay.” 

Two days later, we go to one of our favorite restaurants in Brooklyn and we have a nice dinner.  Then we walk over to Prospect Park and under a tree we propose to each other.  This is the story that we tell everybody.  We leave out the parts about his freak-out and our breakup and my desperate plea. 

A couple of days after that, I move to Fredericksburg, Virginia alone.  I’m in a long-distance relationship with my fiancé. 

As I’m sitting there by myself, I start to wonder, did we jump into this?  Did I force Kartik into something he didn’t want to do?  Was this all a huge mistake? 

But I don't tell him any of this.  Instead I talk about how much fun I’m having with my students and getting to know my colleagues and checking out Pinterest pages with ideas for our wedding. 

While all this is going on, I have been working on this book about the sense of touch.  I've been doing my research.  Touch is fascinating to me because it involves so many innate abilities in our body.  There's movement, there's an understanding of position, there's the feeling on our skin and our emotional reactions. 

There's also more interest in touch lately because of the field of haptics, which is focused on doing things like building robots that can feel and adding more tactile interaction with our technology. 

Touch was an unexpected subject for me mostly because I never really liked it that much.  When I was growing up, my dad used to call me a Touch-Me-Not after the fern that folds in on itself when it’s stroked with a finger because I would shrink away whenever he came too close. 

I still freak out a little bit when I get touched.  I’m not crazy.  There are people I do like to touch.  I like to touch Kartik but I think it’s my fear around touch that drew me to this subject.  I think it takes someone who has such a strong visceral reaction to touch to notice it because it’s a sense that so often operates in the background of our consciousness. 

For my research, I had gone to the World Haptics Conference in Chicago where I met some Northwestern engineers who had built these devices called TPads.  They were basically tablets and phones that were enabled with special touch effects.  So a person might feel the lines of a grid on the screen or, if you put your finger down in a drawing application, you can actually feel some texture.  This was done by altering the vibration pattern on the screen depending on where it was touched. 

It was all really interesting but the creators themselves wondered, what could this be used for?  How could this really enhance the relationship that we have with our devices?  And so they had suggested that I take some phones and play around with them myself.  I’m hoping that by doing this, maybe I can help them figure out the answer to their questions. 

I get the phones a few weeks into my new job and my next trip up to New York to visit Kartik, during which we’re still snapping at each other because we’re not talking honestly, I give a phone to him and I pose it as an experiment that we’re going to conduct together.  By sending each other haptic images, maybe we can figure out what touch is even good for. 

That first week he sends me a couple of interesting photographs of the wood grains of his desk at work and the lines on the palm of his hand.  A program on the phone converts these black and white images into a textural pattern depending on how they're shaded.  It’s kind of cool to feel but, to be honest, it’s not that compelling.  After a few rounds of back and forth, we stop because it’s kind of annoying to carry around an extra-bulky phone. 

At this point I’m feeling kind of dejected.  I guess my experiment is not working and perhaps the conclusion is that haptics are not that useful. 

So I end up talking to a new colleague about my situation.  He's a computer science professor and together we come up with an idea.  Maybe the problem is that we’re just exchanging static images.  What if, instead, I was able to touch Kartik virtually in real time? 

It turns out that my colleague’s son who lives in Austin in his spare time develops smartphone apps and he says he can create one for us. 

A week later, it’s ready.  I try it out with him at first.  So he puts his finger down on the screen and what I see on my end is the image of a heat map of his fingerprint.  When I put my finger down on it and then move it across, I feel a slight haptic bump.  It’s kind of amazing how much a tiny change in the vibration can actually feel like it’s warping the shape of the glass. 

But after I do this for a few more seconds, I have to stop.  I am creeped out.  It feels as strange as if I were actually fondling a real stranger’s finger.  I don't know him well enough to ask him if he feels the same way so instead I tell him, “thank you,” and get off the phone really quickly. 

Sushma Subramanian shares her story at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

Sushma Subramanian shares her story at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

A couple of days later, Kartik gets that phone in the mail and we try it out.  At first, our fingers meet up at the center of the screen and we kind of rub them against each other.  Then I move my finger away and he follows me.  I dart away and he tries to catch me again.  I let him catch me and we keep our fingers there for a moment and then they start nuzzling each other.  We are flirting haptically. 

It’s a very subtle effect but it’s surprising how moving it is.  It’s the first time in a really long time that we've allowed ourselves to connect and it’s a reminder that I think we both need that we need to spend moments like this, enjoying each other’s company and not over-thinking everything that’s happened between us. 

It’s not like the relationship immediately changes after all of this but we do start talking more honestly and we realize that we wouldn’t have actually stayed broken up.  The reason we were so comfortable proposing to each other after all of that had happened was that we knew we were going to get back together at the end. 

A couple of months later, he gets a job not too far from me and then we move into our first apartment together.  Then, soon after that, we get married at a public park in Oakland, California surrounded by friends and family. 

I still get teary eyed thinking about that day when I was sitting in my room feeling Kartik touch me not in person but mediated through a screen.  When the words weren’t coming and our relationship was at its most intense, it was through touch that we were finally able to express ourselves.  Thank you.


Part 2: Nick Andersen

So when you're diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, there are a couple of things that the endocrinologist is going to make you know before you're allowed to leave the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  For starters, you have to be able to explain what it is that diabetes is.  As you'll notice, I’m no longer in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit so this is something I accomplished when I was eleven. 

I don't know if any else out there is diabetic.  If you are, betes pride, and if you're not, let me explain.  When all of you eat food, your body is able to digest it properly.  Your islet cells, which live inside your pancreas, produce insulin and then the insulin allows your body to break apart the energy molecules and the carbohydrates of the food that you're eating and absorb that into your bloodstream and send it out to your assorted organs so that you're able to live. 

My body decided when I was eleven, or really rather when I was ten going into eleven, that my islet cells were a disease that had to be eliminated.  Because I have very effective white blood cells, eliminated my islet cells where they no longer function.  So the first thing I had to be able to explain was what diabetes is, which somewhat enabled me control of my story.  And I've just explained to you what diabetes is. 

The second thing you have to know how to do when you are in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit with Type 1 diabetes is be able to inject yourself.  As I mentioned previously, my body doesn’t produce insulin.  I really like food.  I like eating.  But in order for me to eat, I have to have insulin inside of my body and I don't make any. 

My parents and I had to all learn how to inject insulin.  I take two different kinds of insulin.  I take a short-acting insulin before I eat food.  It allows my body to break the stuff down.  Then I take a long-acting insulin before I go to bed so that I can be at stasis. 

In the hospital when I was eleven, the nurse presented an orange as a practice item and told my parents and I, “Try injecting this orange.  Think of it like a dart.” 

My mother who is very squeamish and not much for darts, impaled that orange with a syringeful of saline water.  It was at that moment that moment that I decided no one else in my family would be handling the insulin injections.  Which was important to me because, along with control of my story, I wanted to be in control of my body. 

And the third thing they make you know before you leave the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit when you're diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes is how to treat high blood sugar and low blood sugar.  Blood sugar it’s the amount of glucose in your blood.  Glucose is the energy that travels around your body.  Because, again, as you may recall I don't produce insulin, if I don’t have a proper level of blood glucose there are some problems. 

High blood sugar you can treat through a variety of ways, but mostly you take insulin.  You take more insulin, you correct it, you go on and run, you work out, you do something to sort of get rid of the excess energy, the excess glucose in your body. 

Low blood sugar is a little bit scarier.  It’s sometimes harder to detect and it can lead to some pretty weird side effects.  It’s different for everybody and it comes from different places.  For me, in particular, I've discovered in the years since I was eleven, low blood sugar leads to an innate sense of paranoia, a sense that everyone is out to get me, that everyone knows I’m a diabetic, everyone assumes I failed in some way and everyone is judging me. 

Nick Andersen 2.jpg

So in practice, I hide.  Occasionally, I kick.  I've been known to bite EMTs.  Why that seemed like an effective strategy of avoiding detention, I can’t say.  But low blood sugar to me is very focused on getting away from everything. 

This was important to me to know how to use highs and lows because I really wanted to be in control of my experience.  I didn’t want anyone else to know what it felt like to be diabetic.  For a while, it was really easy for me to have no one know.  I was really good at taking care of my diabetes.  For ten-ish years, nobody really noticed.  I had friends all the time say, “You're a diabetic?  I wanted to give you some cake.” 

I would eat the cake and I would just take more insulin which, in afterthought, is not the best way of handling Type 1 diabetes.  But it seemed like I was really on top of it. 

I should back up.  There's another way of treating low blood sugar that is even more terrifying that the blood sugar itself.  It’s called the Glucagon.  It’s perhaps the longest needle I have ever seen.  And in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, they just whipped it out and were like, “So, if you're ever really low, you should tell everyone around you, your friends and loved ones and roommates from college, that they can just impale you with this and then that will revive you.” 

I've had a Glucagon in my life ever since then and I may have the same Glucagon because, if it’s expired, I don't want to know because I don't ever want to use it.  Because I was in control of my blood sugar and I would never get that low. 

So as I move on in life and my blood sugar stays more or less level, it starts to become a problem in college.  Not for any particular reason.  I mean, alcohol might have something to do with it.  Changing metabolisms and changing habits might, but little bit else.  

But throughout college and then further into my adult life, I realize there's a fourth thing that I never learned in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of Belmont hospital.  It’s what to do when you have a low blood sugar reading when you're having sex.  Which is something that they should not tell an eleven-year-old but they should definitely tell a twenty-five-year old.  I can provide some examples. 

A guy I dated in 2014 kept wondering why anytime we tried to have sex, I would just get really distant and far away.  He was convinced that I wasn’t that into him.  He wasn’t wrong on that count but he also didn’t realize that every time we tried to have sex I drank so much beer that my blood sugar was just plummeting downward. 

The next guy I dated seriously things were going pretty well.  We went to this party once and I took too much insulin and drank too much gin and then all of a sudden I was in the hospital.  We broke up shortly after that because he was kind of afraid of, like, everyone loves gin.  If this is what’s going to happen, I’m out. 

Then I met Luke.  I was at a weekly potluck.  It was this thing that happens every Sunday.  People together and have food and it’s really quite lovely.  Luke was a regular and pretty soon after I became a regular.  And because I’m pretty thick-headed, I didn’t quite realize that he was asking me out or hitting on me, but he kept trying and so eventually we went out. 

He was nice.  He was a far nicer person than I am.  I was confused for a while why he continued to want to date me because I kept being mean to him, ignoring his text messages and just generally being a horrible person.  But he stuck through it and so we started dating kind of seriously. 

We were at this party not long into our relationship and I had some beer and not enough food.  So later on in the evening when we went back to Luke’s apartment, we got naked and started making out, as you do.  Then I blacked out.  The next thing I knew, Luke’s room was full of these admittedly very good-looking men who all probably could have gotten it, but they were EMTs so they were interested in other things. 

And there was an IV in my arm and I was wearing my boxers, which I hadn’t then when I was asleep, which was kind of confusing.  I was just either Luke had engaged in some sort of very peculiar sex game with me or I had passed out and he had called the ambulance. 

By this point, my blood sugar had risen enough that I was able to refuse service from these very good-looking EMTs.  They left, leaving me there with Luke who by this time was fully dressed. 

I was really afraid.  I thought about if that had happened to me with someone I'd been dating kind of casually and then I just passed out in the middle of sex, I would have left.  That would have been it for me.  I would have revived them, revived them enough to say like, “It’s been fun.  Maybe don’t call me anymore.”

But Luke looked at me and he grabbed my hands and he said, “You know, I don't want that to happen again.” 

And I said, “I definitely don’t want that to happen again.” 

He said, “No, you don’t understand.  Tell me what I can do so that that doesn’t happen again, so that I can help you not have that happen.” 

Photo by Kate Flock.

Photo by Kate Flock.

And I thought about the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and how I wanted to have control of my story and I wanted to have control of my body and I wanted to be in charge of my own experience.  And here was someone who wanted to share in my story, cared about my body and who wanted the experience for both of us to be something that mattered.  I just didn’t know what to do. 

I told him about glucose tablets and we talked about grapefruit juice and we got to a point where we would never have to call the EMTs again. 

I was at my endocrinologist the other day and she said, “You know, you haven't had any catastrophic lows and are really going fine.  I just want to know what happened?” 

In my fridge right now there's a Glucagon, that very long needle that definitely expired about five years ago.  It’s behind the cat food and it should stay there indefinitely.  But I have a better treatment for low blood sugar and it’s Luke.  We moved in in May and being with him has been the best blood-sugar fix that I could possibly ask for, and for that I’m forever grateful.  Thank you.