• Touch is fundamental to human development - yet we are doing it less and less.
  • Given its power, we should try to reintegrate human touch into our lives - even as COVID-19 separates us physically even more.
  • Could technologies such as 'extended reality' become part of the solution?

We experience touch in our daily lives, and are witness to the power of it during poignant moments.

We saw this when the principal of Stoneman Douglas High School promised a hug to every student after a school shooting in 2018, when former President Obama embraced the families of the kids at Sandy Hook in 2012, and when Princess Diana broke royal protocol to hug an HIV-positive child in 1991.

Time and time again, we see touch wielding incredible power. It remains integral to our communication, even in an age of integrated technology – and it imparts emotion when verbal communication isn’t enough.

Touch is important to our development as humans

During the 1960s, thousands of Romanian children were thrown into orphanages where they grew up starved of human contact. After Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s overthrow in 1989, neurobiologist Mary Carlson and psychiatrist Felton Earls visited the orphans, and found them overcome with “muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements.”

They bore similar reactions to psychologist Harry Harlow’s monkey infants who, when removed from their mothers, embraced a cloth-covered surrogate as opposed to a cold wire one with milk — choosing “to feel nourished, rather than be nourished” (see figure below). Most orphans were physically and psychologically delayed, misdiagnosed with mental disabilities due to physical tics, and had smaller brains than their healthy counterparts.

In this 1958 experiment, infant monkeys chose their mother's touch over food
In this 1958 experiment, infant monkeys chose their mother's touch over food
Image: Author / Harry F. Harlow

The Romanian orphans are a continuous reminder that touch defines the shapes of our brains and the wiring in our minds, essentially creating who we are. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed a parallel drop in human contact with the rise of technology and the arrival of COVID-19.

Touch is declining

In the 1960s, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied conversations between friends in different countries around the world. He found that friends in England never touched each other, friends in the US made contact twice, and friends in France and Puerto Rico made 110 and 180 points of contact, respectively.

There are a number of reasons for the decline of touch in the West. We live in an age in which decades of sexual misconduct have finally come to light, and touch no longer feels safe. In 2018, doctors were advised against hugging patients and foster carers avoided hugging their children due to the dangers of overstepping boundaries and legal action.

Francis McGlone, a professor in neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, is worried about the natural consequences that may follow. “We have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses... [and] legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health... We seem to have been creating a touch-averse world.”

Yet it would be naive to posit touch as a universal good. A mere handshake can communicate dominance, power and persuasion. This 1984 study, titled The Midas Touch, found that servers who patted diners on the arm received a more generous tip, and people in care homes will eat more after physical contact. Power imbalances make touch a dangerous weapon, and these valid fears should be properly addressed for such situations.

Even so, French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen found that students who were given a friendly pat by their teachers were three times as likely to speak up in class. He writes: “These findings suggest that as we define and redefine the limits for this contact, we should not neglect the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers.”

While touch’s influence will never be limited to comfort alone, it would be wise to reconsider how we can integrate touch back into our lives while ensuring consent and safety for everyone.

Has the pandemic killed off handshakes for good?
Has the pandemic killed off handshakes for good?
Image: Statista

Touch will be redefined in the future

Social distancing will have a lasting effect on our communication. Handshakes and hugs may transform into more non-tactile greetings, such as a wave or a bow.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes that Americans should never shake hands again. Meanwhile, Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University admits that although it will take time to get back to what was normal, physical touch remains a salient factor in our health, and should never be ignored.

For now, as we find ourselves deprived of touch, we may find mediated solutions in fields such as extended reality (XR), a growing industry that received more than $4.1 billion of investment in 2019, led by major tech companies such as Apple and Facebook.

XR refers to all immersive technologies: augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. By blending the real and virtual world, XR creates a fully immersive experience that shows promising impact in not only the workplace and school, but at home as well.

The desire to stay connected at home has been answered by recent product releases from Facebook’s Portal, Google’s Nest Hub, and Amazon’s Echo Show. Although these devices have been helpful in keeping people connected while physically distant, they all lack the dimension of touch, causing frustration and emptiness at times.

That’s not to say we haven’t tried to mediate touch through various technologies. The Apple Watch can create vibrations that simulate your heartbeat, which can be sent to friends as a more intimate method of communication. The Parihug is a stuffed animal specially designed for children that receives haptic hugs sent from parents and relatives from far away. Efforts like these can be combined into an entire ecosystem of solutions, accelerating us towards a future where consensual touch can not only be accepted but celebrated as well.

Incorporating touch into our digital communications could not only help mitigate the effects of skin hunger, but hopefully allow human bonding even when physically apart. Holding hands with a loved one is much more than the simple perception of palm against palm — it is a reminder that touch holds emotion and power.