This is, if you will pardon the pun, a very touchy subject. In the litigious society of the U.S. and in the climate of the #MeToo movement and equality, cross-gender physical contact of any kind requires careful consideration. Let me say up front that this article is about appropriate, consensual touch. Even this, though, can brand a person negatively as “touchy-feely,” in the current social climate. It is truly odd that a country so regarded as morally decadent by Middle Eastern standards, perhaps stemming from the ’60s flower-power free love and the images projected in today’s film and music, should actually be so conservative and uncomfortable when it comes to touching. Even the nations of Europe and Scandinavia have fewer hang-ups about it.
It’s a complex subject internationally because of the differing societal norms of each culture. Asia, the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are broadly classified as low-contact nations, while Latin America and the Mediterranean countries are regarded as high-contact. Modifying complications arise from relational closeness, gender, age, context and personality type. Hand-holding between men is common in the Middle East and Africa as a show of simple friendship or brotherhood, while physical contact between gender opposites who are not family is totally taboo. Patting on the head is frowned upon in some Asian countries such as Thailand, but is seen as a sign of affection in Korea and Japan. Touching is, therefore, a minefield to be negotiated with care.
Some notes about touch: the skin is the body’s largest sense organ and touch is the first sense to develop; it does so in the womb. We use different kinds of nerve fibers to detect different kinds of touch and they communicate with different parts of the brain. Experiments have shown that a simple touch on the arm successfully conveyed a range of different emotions to a stranger 83 percent of the time. Touch, then, is not only important to well-being, but it is also a subliminal tool of communication.
Over the past couple of decades, many studies have confirmed both the emotional and physical benefits that result from touch. The current science unequivocally suggests that touch is fundamental to human health, communication and bonding. Non-human primates in many parts of the world spend 10-20 percent of their day grooming each other. It is, for instance, a necessity for the hierarchy and social structure of chimpanzee groups in the wild, assisting in the formation of cooperative alliances. Even research on rats has found that infants, whose mothers licked and groomed their young a lot, became calmer adults, more resilient to stress and with stronger immune systems. It has long been known that newborns should be allowed time cuddling skin-to-skin with their birth mother immediately after birth. A study reported in the journal, “Biological Psychiatry,” showed that the beneficial effects of maternal skin-to-skin contact with premature babies compared with an incubator-treated control group could still be detected 10 years later in attenuated stress response, organized sleep and better cognitive control.
Touch activates parts of the brain’s cortex that are linked to feelings of reward and compassion. It activates the vagus nerve, whose primary role is to slow the nervous system resulting in reduced blood pressure and heart rate, and a drop in the level of damaging stress-hormones. Even a simple touch can trigger the release of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” that is less about love than about feel-good benefits to both parties. Brain studies have confirmed that a person’s reaction to threat and stress can be calmed by the touch of a partner, compared to an untouched control group. One study found that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more won more games.
Science has little doubt that not only is touch a good thing, but it is also essential to the human condition. It is therefore unfortunate that the advent of television, the technical development of digital communication and the widespread use of interconnected personal digital devices has facilitated an increasing physical separation between people. No longer do we convene to play board games or cards in person as previous generations did. The development of online computer games and social platforms like Facebook and Instagram have substituted closer visual and aural contact for the physical presence that would provide an opportunity for the non-sexual, platonic touch that carries so many benefits. Even when together, teenagers are often seen consulting their phones. Dr. Tiffany Fields, a foremost researcher in touch, says, “I think kids today are much more touch-deprived than they were before smartphones.” Our public schools forbid any physical contact between teachers and students, even as simple encouragement. It is for good reasons, but it also contributes to the isolation of the pupil.
This societal shift away from touch has been compounded in the last year by the pandemic, which has necessitated officially mandated social distancing and the avoidance of incidental touch of even the slightest kind. For psychiatry, the situation has created the most widespread artificial separation of people in history, a golden opportunity to study people’s reaction to loss of touch.
May 17 was a seminal day in Britain when lockdown restrictions were eased and hugging was actually officially sanctioned. Perhaps it should be called Huggers’ Day. Society can be said to be composed of huggers and non-huggers, and to a large extent, a person’s position on the spectrum depends on upbringing. Speaking personally, my childhood in Britain was very Victorian. Male relatives, even my father, never hugged me. He was well into his 70s before he did that; it was always a handshake, and I grew up as a rather formal person, myself. It was something of a culture shock halfway through my life when I came to the U.S. and was hugged by male friends. Now I confess to being a hugger of all genders. It seems that huggers have had a particularly hard time having to socially distance through this pandemic, so maybe the science explains why.
Early last year, before and marginally overlapping the COVID lockdown in Britain, the BBC, in conjunction with the Wellcome Collection, Goldsmith’s University of London, and Greenwich University, conducted the largest study on touch ever, with 40,000 respondents from 112 countries. The results were understandably complicated by a wide variety of factors, but certain things were unequivocal: 72 percent of respondents had a positive attitude to touch, with 27 percent negative. 54 percent felt they did not have enough touch in their lives with only 3 percent responding there was too much. The main constraints on touch were, in order or significance, the difficulty of establishing consent and its boundaries, lack of social opportunity, and the changing attitudes to touch. Remember that these results are from a period that mostly pre-dates COVID distancing, which can only have underlined them.
Science is now directed to teasing out the many factors that influence the experience of touch, having established that the right touch is, in itself, a good thing. Society, on the other hand, has some way to go before it develops an acceptable framework that recognizes and safely encompasses the benefits. That’s likely to remain a very personal choice for a long time yet.
To touch is to give life.
© David Cuin 2021