WE DON’T TOUCH ANYMORE: The Power of Touch and Its Fall from Grace in the Pandemic
By – Eshna
Cue scene from a labour room.
The child emerges into the world, screaming and placenta-covered, and is at once thrust into the arms of the exhausted, spent mother, who cradles her child oh so gently, skin-against-skin.
This small moment, in addition to being emotionally sacrosanct, also has a wide variety of very real benefits. To the growing child, touch signifies attachment and helps in bonding. It even relays messages of security— a mother’s caress or a gentle squeeze makes the child feel safe and protected.
Doctors have time and again emphasised how important touch is for the optimal development of a child, saying that skin-to-skin contact between mother and the baby is extremely necessary for holistic growth.
A study done on Romanian children who had spent their formative years in institutional care where there was a stark lack of tactile stimulation turned out to suffer long term impacts—deficits in both emotion and cognition. Psychologists noticed the children were socially withdrawn, had blank facial expressions and were not adequately responsive.
Touch plays a critical role in life from the very beginning. It is the very first method of communication one learns, long before one acquires the skill for language. The benefits of touch are not just restricted to the developmental years. In fact, they’re life long, with people across all age ranges experiencing positive results of touch in a myriad ways, and permeate all aspects- physical, psychological, physiological and cognitive.
The human body is built to process touch.
Billions of cells and nerve endings are devoted to making sense of it. A warm handshake, a friendly hug, a lover’s intimate embrace— all of these everyday actions are processed by the body to release a variety of ‘feel good’ hormones like oxytocin. Touch builds immunity, reduces levels of cortisol, it even activates parts of the brain associated with empathy.
Touch is important to human beings on a fundamental level. The urge to touch, and be touched, is organismic. It is cellular.
Michelangelo once said, “To touch is to give life.”
Now, as the COVID crisis continues to grip the world in a cruel embrace and human beings have to shun all forms of physical contact, it seems that “to not touch is to preserve life” would be more relevant. Move over, Michelangelo.
Touch, once the basis for meaningful bonding and connection, is now heavily frowned upon. Handshakes have been replaced by distant nods. Grandparents now only get to fawn over their beloved grandchildren through window panes or phone screens. When I walk into the grocery store for my weekly grocery run, the other shoppers take a few steps away, distrustful eyes peering out at me from masked faces.
A friend of a friend, let’s call him D, who has been living and working alone in a foreign country for almost a year now, tells me he hasn’t been close to another human being in months.
“How does that feel?” I ask.
“I try not to think of it too much, but sometimes, it strikes me and I feel terrible. It almost feels like my body is aching. ”
D may very well be suffering from skin hunger, also known as touch deprivation, a condition that manifests itself in the absence of meaningful tactile stimulation.
Research shows that skin hunger or touch starvation has undeniable negative effects. It increases susceptibility to depression, anxiety and hampers the immunity. It also stimulates the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with the body’s ‘flight or fight’ response.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, is not fond of the idea of reintroducing the handshake. “I don’t think we should shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Fauci said during a Wall Street Journal podcast last month.
Some experts believe that some forms of greetings, like hugs and handshakes may never return, but rather, will be replaced by non-tactile variants like waves, nods and bows.
So, what is the future like for touch?
It goes without saying that social distancing norms will remain in place for some time to come. It is hard to imagine a future without bustling markets, teeming restaurants or roiling, lurching crowds in packed sports stadiums and concert halls, but human beings are and always have been resilient, adaptive creatures, and there is hope that we will find new, innovative ways to reintroduce joy and intimacy into our lives.