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The need to touch

23 1 0

Touch is the first sense by which we encounter the world, and the final one to leave us as we approach death’s edge. ‘Touch comes before sight, before speech,’ writes Margaret Atwood in her novel The Blind Assassin (2000). ‘It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.’ Human foetuses are covered in fine hairs known as lanugo, which appear around 16 weeks of pregnancy. Some researchers believe that these delicate filaments enhance the pleasant sensations of our mother’s amniotic fluid gently washing over our skin, a precursor to the warm and calming feeling that a child, once born, will derive from being hugged.

Touch has always been my favourite sense – a loyal friend, something I can rely on to lift me up when I’m feeling down, or spread joy when I’m on a high. As an Italian living abroad for more than a decade, I often suffered from a kind of touch hunger, which had knock-on consequences for my mood and health more generally. People in northern Europe use social touch much less than people in southern Europe. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that I spent the past few years studying touch as a scientist.

Lately, though, touch has been going through a ‘prohibition era’: it’s been a rough time for this most important of the senses. The 2020 pandemic served to make touch the ultimate taboo, next to coughing and sneezing in public. While people suffering from COVID-19 can lose the sense of smell and taste, touch is the sense that has been diminished for almost all of us, test-positive or not, symptomatic or not, hospitalised or not. Touch is the sense that has paid the highest price.

But if physical distance is what protects us, it’s also what stands in the way of care and nurturance. Looking after another human being almost inevitably involves touching them – from the very basic needs of bathing, dressing, lifting, assisting and medical treatment (usually referred to as instrumental touch), to the more affective tactile exchanges that aim to communicate, provide comfort and offer support (defined as expressive touch). Research in osteopathy and manual therapy, where practitioners have been working closely with neuroscientists on affective touch, suggests that the beneficial effect of massage therapy goes well beyond the actual manoeuvre performed by the therapist. Rather, there is something special simply in the act of resting one’s hands on the skin of the client. There is no care, there is no cure, without touch.

The present touch drought arrived after a period in which people were already growing more afraid of touching one another. Technology has enabled this distance, as social networking sites have become the primary source of social interaction for children and adolescents. A recent survey showed that 95 per cent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 per cent say that they are online ‘almost constantly’.

Another reason for touch-scepticism is the growing global awareness of how touch is a weapon that men use to impose their power over women. The #MeToo movement exposed how women are expected to acquiesce to inappropriate touch as the cost of gaining access to certain kinds of opportunities. Meanwhile, doctors, nurses, teachers and salespeople are all guided against being too ‘hands-on’. Yet studies suggest that touch actually improves the quality of our encounters with any of these professionals, and makes us evaluate the experience more positively. For example, we are likely to give a more generous tip to a waiter who absently touches our shoulder when taking the order than to those who keep their distance.

What’s unique about touch, when set against the other senses, is its mutuality. While we can look without being looked back at, we can’t touch without being touched in return. During the pandemic, nurses and doctors have talked about how this unique characteristic of touch helped them communicate with patients. When they couldn’t talk, smile or be seen properly because of their protective equipment, medical professionals could always rely on a pat on the shoulder, holding a hand or squeezing an arm to reassure patients and let them know that they were not alone. In a pandemic where touch is a proven vector, paradoxically it’s also a part of the cure. Touch really is the ultimate tool for social connection, and the good news is that we were born fully accessorised to make the most of it.

In the 1990s, there was a wave of research demonstrating the shocking consequences of touch deprivation on human development. Several studies showed that children from Romanian orphanages, who were barely touched........

© Aeon

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