- Mental Health
Keeping in touch: how human contact nurtures our wellbeing
“Touch is the first sense by which we encounter the world, and the final one to leave us as we approach death’s edge”, says neuroscientist Laura Crucianelli. And looking back at our ancestral past or reading the wealth of scientific literature highlights just how crucial physical contact is for our wellbeing.
But now touch is the ultimate taboo, and its absence is felt deeply by everyone around the world. The arrival of cushions like Hugvie, and virtual cuddle sessions suggest that we’re heading towards a world where touch is digitalised. Will this wave of 21st century technology suffice as an alternative for contact?
The deep-seated need for touch
Touch plays a central role in our physical, social, neurological and emotional development. Crucianelli distinguishes between instrumental touch – used to help in completion of a task - and expressive touch – used in a nurturing or caring manner.
Neuroscientist Francis McGlone delves deeper to point out that we have a nerve fibre called the C-tactile afferent, which is responsible for an increase in oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), dopamine (the feel-good hormone), and serotonin (the happy hormone), as well as a reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone). In other words, human contact is like an anaesthetic.
And our need for touch permeates all cultures and eras. According to neuroscientist David Linden, the Native Americans of Navajo believe that our life force stems from our fingers, which is why fingerprints have a swirling pattern. This parallels an insightful observation by public health specialist Paquita de Zueta that skin is more than a barrier; it is a highly sensitive social organ that allows us to communicate every emotion from anger to sympathy, fear to love.
The beauty of physical contact extends further still: “What’s unique about touch, when set against the other senses, is its mutuality”, says Crucianelli, “While we can look without being looked back at, we can’t touch without being touch in return.” Even the way we speak is infused with metaphors, for example, we “keep in touch” and we are “touched by your gesture.”
The threat posed by Covid-19
The severed connection between wellbeing and touch since the arrival of Covid-19 is perfectly encapsulated by lexicologist Susie Dent: “Contact is no longer intuitive but carefully controlled”. An aspect of daily life we never noticed has become painfully apparent, and we’ve entered a period of what has been termed “touch starvation,” “skin hunger” or “affection deprivation.”
A brilliant piece in The Independent highlights the impact of the pandemic on those living alone: “I feel slightly hollow all the time, and profoundly lonely”, says Singaporean writer Stephanie. She yearns for someone to simply hold her hand and say “hey, it’s fine”. It seems that touch offers a powerful remedy for uncertainty.
The situation is even more desperate among those in hospitals and care homes, and people with disabilities. In particular, the DeafBlind community feel the situation is insurmountable, as they use pro-tactile sign-language to communicate, which relies on human contact. Disability activist Haben Girma says that this overlooked population worries that hospitals won’t provide access to interpreters or, distressingly, will even decide against saving their lives. It is clear that the wellbeing of vulnerable members of society is under great strain.
The digitalisation of human contact
De Zuleta notes that the technological revolution was pushing us towards a touchless society even before the pandemic, but Covid19 is now accelerating this seismic societal shift. What kind of devices are on the market to replicate human touch, and are there any techniques that we can harness to fill the void?
- Hugvie pillow and robotics: In 2012, ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories created Hugvie, a robotic cushion that pulses to the voice of loved ones when they phone you. In fact, research by Wilemse and van Erp suggests that robotic touches can elicit the same positive responses as human contact.
- Self-hug and massages: Professor Merle Fairhurst is trialling an alternative to touch which involves asking people to imagine the last hug they had, and then wrapping their arms around themselves in a self-hug for 2 minutes. Health journalist Honah Liles points out that self-massage, and even massaging devices, can have similar effects on our oxytocin and cortisol.
- Cuddle Sanctuary and virtual hugs: Professional cuddlers originally helped those with PTSD and autism, as well as victims of sexual assault, but the pandemic is seeing a sharp increase in demand for remote cuddle sessions among the rest of the population. Similar to the self-hug, clients visualise a pleasant experience and then simulate the sensation of being held by another person. This ability to self-soothe is highly beneficial. For example, writer Randy Kelley, who had spent a month quarantining alone tells The Guardian that he felt as if he’d spent a week meditating after one session.
- Tjacket and hugging garments: The Tjacket is a hug jacket designed to calm children and adults by activating the parasympathetic nervous system through deep touch pressure. There’s also the Hug shirt that uses your phone’s Bluetooth to record a hug, and then immediately delivers it to your friend’s phone which activates their hug shirt wherever they are. It means you can send hugs in real-time all over the world!
Our ability to adapt means we have created innovative ways to reap the benefits of the human touch. But, “physical distancing leaves invisible scars on our skin,” notes Crucianelli. Like her, we remain hopeful, however, that there will be a “renaissance of touch” once restrictions are lifted, and the post-pandemic world will savour rather than abandon touch; the most vital sense for our wellbeing.
Croffey, Helen. 2020. Affection deprivation: What happens to our bodies when we go without touch? The Independent [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/touch-skin-hunger-hugs-coronavirus-lockdown-isolation-c-tactile-afferent-nerve-a9501676.html
Crucianelli, Laura. 2020. The need to touch. Aeon [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/touch-is-a-language-we-cannot-afford-to-forget
Dent, Susie. 2020. We will always remember the language of touch. iNews [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/susie-dent-coronavirus-social-distancing-remember-language-of-touch-429724
de Zulueta, Paquita. 2020. Touch matters – touch, Covid-19, the physical examination and 21st century general practice. BJGP Life [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://bjgplife.com/2020/10/12/touch-matters-touch-covid-19-the-physical-examination-and-21st-century-general-practice/
Hammond, Claudia. 2020. ‘Why I’m not alone in missing hugs during the pandemic.” BBC [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-54373924
Liles, Honah. 2020. How to hug yourself. Slate [online] Acessed on 11th November 2020. Available at: https://slate.com/technology/2020/05/technology-touch-substitutes-robots-weighted-blankets.html
Linden, David. 2015. Touch: The science of hand, heart and mind. New York: Viking.
Pierce, Shanley. 2020. Touch starvation is a consequence of Covid-19’s physical distancing. Texas Medical Centre [online] Accessed on 10th November. Available at: https://www.tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation/
Vargas, Theresa. 2020. ‘I could not touch what was not mine’: How the DeafBlind are coping with social distancing. The Independent [online] Accessed on 10th November 2020. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/deafblind-coronavirus-lockdown-social-distancing-touch-a9468646.html
Volpe, Allie. 2020. Embracing change: pandemic forces professional cuddlers to get creative. The Guardian [online] Accessed on 11th November 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jul/22/cuddle-therapy-coronavirus-social-distancing-virtual
Wilemse, Christian & Jan van Erp. 2019. Social touch in human-robot interaction: Robot initiated touches can induce positive responses with extensive prior bonding. International Journal of Social Robotics 11. 285-304.