Notes    Hug machine

Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist on Mars
Picador, 1995, ISBN 0-330-34167-7,
pp. 250-253

`What is that?' I asked.
      `That's my squeeze machine,' Temple replied. `Some people call it my hug machine.'
      The device had two heavy, slanting wooden sides, perhaps four by three feet each, pleasantly upholstered with a thick, soft padding. The were joined by hinges to a long, narrow bottom board to create a V-shaped, body-sized trough. There was a complex control box at one end, with heavy-duty tubes leading off to another device, in a closet. Temple showed me this as well. `It's an industrial compressor,' she said, `the kind they use for filling tyres.'
      `And what does this do?'
      `It exerts a firm but comfortable pressure on the body, from the shoulders to the knees,' Temple said. `Either a steady pressure or a variable one or a pulsating one, as you wish,' she added. `You crawl into it - I'll show you - and turn the compressor on, and you have all the controls in your hand, here, right in front of you.'
      When I asked her why one should seek to submit oneself to such pressure, she told me. When she was hugged, especially by a favourite (but vast) aunt, she felt overwhelmed, overcome by sensation; she had a sense of peacefulness and pleasure, but also of terror and engulfment. She started to have daydreams - she was just five at the time - of a agic machine that could squeeze her powerfully but gently, in a huglike way, and in a way entirely commanded and controlled by her. Years later, as an adolescent, she had seen a picture of a squeeze chute designed to hold or restrain calves and realized that that was it: a little modification to make it suitable for human use, and it could be her magic machine. She had considered other devices - inflatable suits, which could excert an even pressure all over the body - but the squeeze chute, in its simplicity, was quite irresistible
      Being of a practical turn of mind, she soon made her fantasy come true. The early models were crude, with some snags and glitches, but she eventually evolved a totally comfortabe, predictable system, capable of administering a `hug' with whatever parameters she desired. Her squeeze machine had worked exactly as she hoped, yielding the very sense of calmness and pleasure she had dreamed of since childhood. She could not have gone through the stormy days of college without her squeeze machine, she said. She could not turn to human beings for solace and comfort, but she could always turn to it. The machine, which she neither exhibited nor concealed but kept openly in her room at college, excited derision and suspicion and was seen by psychiatrists as a `regression' or `fixation' - something that needed to be psychoanalysed and resolved. With her characteristic stubbornness, tenacity, single-mindedness, and bravery - along with complete absence of inhibition or hesitation - Temple ignored these comments and reactions and determined to find a `validation' of her feelings.
      Both before and after writing her doctoral thesis, she made a systematic investigation of the effects of deep pressure in autistic people, college students, and animals, and recently a paper of hers on this was published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. Today, her squeeze machine, veriously modified, is receiving extensive clinical trials. She has also become the world's foremost designer of squeeze chutes for cattle and has published, in the meat-industry and veterinary literature, many articles on the theory and practice of humane restraint and gentle holding.
      While telling me this, Temple knelt down, then eased herself, facedown and at full length, into the `V', turned on the compressor (it took a minute for the master cylinder to fill), and twisted the controls. The side converged, clasping her firmly, and then, as she made a small adjustment, relaxed their grip slightly. It was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen, and yet, for all its oddness, it was moving and simple. Certainly there was no doubt of its effect. Temple's voice, often loud and hard, became softer and gentler as she lay in her machine. `I concentrate on how gently I can do it,' she said, and then spoke of the necssity of `totally giving in to it . . . I'm getting real relaxed now,' she added quetly. `I guess others get this through relaxation with other people.'
      It's not just pleasore or relaxation that Temple gets from the machine, but, she maintains, a feeling for others. As she lies in her machine, she says, her thoughts often turn to her mother, her favourite aunt, her teachers. She feels their love for her, and hers for them. She feels that the machine opens a door into an otherwise closed emotional world and allows her, almost teaches her, to feel empathy for others.
      After twenty minutes or so, she emerged, visibly calmer, emotionally less rigid (she says that a cat can easily sense this difference inher at these times), and asked me if I would care to try the machine.
      Indeed, I was curious and scrambled into it, feeling a little foolish and self-conscious - but less so than I might have been, because Temple herself was so wholly lacking in self-consciousness. She turned the compressor on again and filled the master cylinder, and I experimented gingerly with the controls. It was indeed a sweet, calming feeling - one that reminded me of my deep-diving days long ago, when I felt the pressure of the water on my diving suit as a whole-body embrace.