The pandemic has forced us to think about who we touch more than ever before. For most of us it’s been more than six months since we have shaken hands, let alone hugged a friend who we don’t live with. In every human interaction we have outside our homes we are now forced to focus on keeping our distance from other people.
Even when we see family who we’ve been apart from for months, we have to consciously resist the temptation to kiss or embrace them in case it puts both them and us at risk. (Read more about Claudia Hammond’s own experience during lockdown.)
For many of us, the pandemic has brought home the importance of physical contact in our lives. Only in its absence have we noticed its worth. Is it possible that we are in the midst not only of a health crisis, but a crisis of touch?
And were some people missing out on the touch they wanted even before the coronavirus? Does society offer us enough opportunities for touch?
These are some of the questions that the Touch Test, a collaboration between BBC Radio 4 and the Wellcome Collection, set out to answer. A team of psychologists led by Michael Banissy at Goldsmiths University of London created an online study which was launched at the end of the January 2020. It included questions on where people liked to be touched on their bodies by friends or strangers, and whether they would be prepared to use a device to allow them to shake hands remotely. Two months later almost 40,000 people from 112 different countries have taken part in the study. (Learn seven amazing things about our sense of touch.)
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The results reveal a nuanced picture when it comes to human touch. Even before the pandemic it would be an oversimplification to say that we were in a “touch crisis” and that everyone was hungering for more. The situation is much more subtle, and in my view, more interesting than that.
Many people who crave more touch believe that today’s world doesn’t provide enough opportunities for it (Credit: Getty Images)
The Touch Test found that people are divided over whether they personally get enough touch in their lives as well as over whether today’s society gives us enough opportunity to touch each other. Almost all the participants in this study completed the questionnaire in early 2020 before lockdowns were widespread and before social distancing became the norm. Just over half of people said they got too little touch in their lives, but 42% said they got about the right amount. And 43% of people thought that society does not enable them to touch enough, while 26% said society does provide them with enough opportunities for touch.
So, it’s clear that while some people hunger for more touch and think that modern life somehow prevents us from getting what we need, by no means everyone agrees. And not everyone wants it either.
While almost three quarters of people said that they like interpersonal touch, 27% do not. The team looked at age and gender along with a host of other factors to try to work out what separates those who like touch from those who don’t. Two key factors emerge.
For those who like touch, their well-being levels were higher if they had been touched recently
The first is personality. Extroverts feel more positive about interpersonal touch than introverts do. The second factor is how easy people find relationships with other adults. People who want to feel very independent in their relationships or who find it hard to get emotionally close to others tend not to like touch as much as those who find it easier. But people who feel anxious in their relationship value touch more.
Of those who crave more touch and believe that today’s world doesn’t provide enough opportunities for it, the most common reason they gave was the issue of consent. It’s possible that after #metoo came to the fore, some people are more cautious about physical contact with others. The next most common reason given was a lack of social interactions where touch was possible, followed by changes in society’s attitudes towards physical contact.
The Touch Test also gives us some indication of how powerful the right kind of touch can be. People with positive attitudes towards touch had higher levels of well-being and said they felt less lonely than those who don’t like it. And for those who like touch, their well-being levels were higher if they had been touched recently. (Listen to some of the findings from the Touch Test.)
The pandemic has closed off many opportunities for people to be close to friends and colleagues (Credit: Getty Images)
These results were obtained before lockdowns started in most parts of the world. The final week of the study, however, did coincide with the start of lockdown in the UK and some other countries, and there is a trend in the data towards more people that week saying they weren’t getting enough touch. But to discover what happened to people further into lockdown, we can look to two other studies.
In the US, Tiffany Field, a psychologist at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, conducted an online study in April, where she found that by the end of the month 68% of people said they were experiencing low to high levels of touch deprivation. Preliminary results of an international study conducted in five countries in April by Merle Fairhurst, professor of biological psychology at the Bundeswehr University Munich, Germany, showed that in April, 61% of people were missing the touch of a stranger and 35% were missing touching family members.
If our skin is stroked at the ideal speed of 3cm per second then messages are sent via the nervous system to the brain
While you might expect families who spent a lot of time together in lockdown to have more opportunity than usual to comfort each other physically, Field found that only a fifth of parents said they were hugging, holding and kissing their children more.
It is no surprise that we miss touch when we are deprived of it. The human body even has a special system for detecting pleasant touch. As well as the receptors in the skin, which respond very quickly to pain, there are receptors called C-tactile afferent fibres, which respond more slowly.
If our skin is stroked at the ideal speed of 3cm (1.2 inches) per second, the kind of speed you would naturally use to try to soothe somebody, then messages are sent via the nervous system to the brain. Here they provoke a pleasurable chemical cocktail, where the stress hormone cortisol reduces and oxytocin increases.
Even thinking about the caress you are about to receive can trigger the release of dopamine in the reward system.
It is no surprise that we miss touch when we are deprived of it (Credit: Getty Images)
So, what can we do to about this lack of touch, when the threat of infection means we are likely to need to keep our distance from others for quite a while longer yet?
Field found during April that some people saw similar benefits to well-being and sleep if they substituted outdoor exercise for touch. Fairhurst is developing an app which trains you to stroke someone’s skin at the perfect speed. When I tried it, simply stroking the screen at that speed felt quite soothing. Her research has also shown that grooming yourself by applying lotions or creams, for example, can have some of the same impact as touch, as can eating nice food.
But she warns that eating for comfort is less sustainable than exercise in the long term. It’s also important to remember that the quality of touch matters, so it’s worth trying consciously to become more aware of touch and to make an effort to touch the people in your bubble in a caring way. And if this doesn’t work how about a self-hug? What you need to do is to think about a really good hug you experienced in the past, wrap your arms around your body and hold yourself. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but it’s not bad.
* Claudia Hammond is the presenter of Anatomy of Touch on BBC Radio 4.
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