(c) 2016 Michael Rzepecki/Huffington Post Creative Labs

A recent article from The Economist 1 focused on the “skin hunger” that has affected millions worldwide given measures during the coronavirus pandemic to socially distance and avoid physical contact with non-household members. People experiencing skin hunger receive less touch than they desire (or need). Underlying this phenomenon is the human necessity for touch. The article’s opening vignette puts a face on this problem: Since March, Larry, a 62-year-old accountant living alone in Chicago, has had contact with only nurses taking his blood pressure. He yearns to “have someone to hold or to hold him.” Interviewing with Independent, Stephanie, a writer in Singapore who lives alone, expressed similar sadness about having no one to touch.

Among the benefits of touch mentioned in the Economist article are:

  • Detection of stimuli by which humans can walk and feel pain and by which humans navigate the world
  • Development of relationships (touch activates hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, so we feel less anxious and happier around friends with whom we have physical contact)
  • Improvement in the physical and cognitive development of infants
  • Depression of cortisol levels (which, in turn, decreases stress)
  • Possible improvement in immune health (including increased production of killers cells in HIV and cancer patients)

Absence of touch is likewise associated with a variety of undesirable outcomes, including increased aggression, later cognitive development, and aggravated mental health. Scientific studies backing these hypotheses have been reviewed by Gallace & Spence (2010) and Field (2010), and in books like Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind (2016), by David J. Linden, and additional research in the last decade lends further support. The Book of Touch (2005; republished 2020), edited by Constance Classen, discusses the cultural formation of touch and its personal experience across different cultures and demographics. It steps away from the scientific and philosophical to examine the social of both pleasant and unpleasant touch.

Of course, knowledge about the cruciality of touch predated structured investigation. There is a reason that solitary confinement2,3 is perhaps the worst punishment to which one might consign a person; by definition, there is no meaningful contact with other human beings. Writing for The Guardian, Chelsea E. Manning (formerly Bradley E. Manning), a former U.S. Army soldier court-martialed for disclosing over 700,000 sensitive documents to WikiLeaks, shared that after just two weeks in solitary confinement “I was contemplating suicide.” In 1970, the discovery of Genie, a feral child whose main physical contact with other humans, until she was 13, were beatings from her father, presented for child psychologists an incredible, unexpected study on the impact of such neglect – nearly void of visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation – on child development, particularly language. In abusive relationships, withholding affection is among the most pernicious forms of emotional abuse.

In the United States, this issue of touch is especially prominent because of the way that touch has been sexualized. For this post’s featured image (what you see scrolling through the home page), I searched “holding hands friends.” (Super grammatically correct, I know.) The results in Google Images were mostly women. The image I chose of two men holding hands came from Our Fabriq, on an article about platonic friends holding hands. “In Western culture,” the article began, “holding hands is largely viewed as an activity exclusively for couples” and, at least in the United States, I do see this play out. I was reminded of a post I read last summer on how the physical and the sexual have become conflated to such a degree that “[m]ost people no longer recognize a platonic touch when they see it.”

I decided to feature male friends holding hands because, while hand-holding among “just friends” women is generally accepted (though that may be changing), most of the time a guy can’t hold another guy’s hand without some third party assuming they’re romantically involved; likewise for opposite-sex friends.4 Mark Greene at The Good Men Project said that the loss of platonic touch, fueled by fears of sexual assault accusations and of betraying one’s masculinity, has left American men “[s]tarving for physical connection.” Andrew Reiner at The New York Times concurs, quoting clinical psychologist Jay Skidmore’s observation that “social-cultural trends in America have focused for decades on reducing touch.”

People have different levels of comfort when it comes to touch, some of it personal and some of it shaped by cultural expectations. For those in Christian circles (and, now, even those outside Christian circles), the Five Love Languages, first outlined by Dr. Gary Chapman, a pastor who earned a doctoral degree in adult education, in his 1992 The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, may be familiar. The idea goes that people express love (focus was on romantic love, but it can extend to platonic love, as in close friendships5) in five general ways: Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Acts of Service. The 5 Love Languages website has four quizzes – couple’s, children’s, teen’s, and single’s – for a person to better understand their love profile. My results a couple of years ago ranked Physical Touch at the bottom of the heap. It confirmed for me what I knew about myself: Much of the time, I’m not comfortable with touch.

The reality, though, is that we all need touch. From the womb through old age, touch is essential for healthy development and for physical and mental well-being, as a slowly growing body of literature on subjects ranging from orphans in Romania to adults in senior care has indicated. Not everyone may want a hug, but everyone, to some extent, needs one. The involuntary social experiment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein millions have had to restrict their physical contact with family, friends, casual friends, and acquaintances, has further emphasized the importance of touch in human life and the effect that its absence has on our mental and emotional health.

  1. A social media post I came across grumbled about the people who typically read The Economist, and I felt so called out.
  2. In his expert report on the Pelican Bay State Prison in California, the only supermax facility in the state, Dr. Craig Haney of UC Santa Cruz clarified that solitary confinement as discussed in the literature refers to “[s]egregation from the mainstream prisoner population in attached housing units or free-standing facilities where prisoners are involuntarily confined in their cells for upwards of 23 hours a day or more, given only extremely limited or no opportunities for direct and normal social contact with other persons…, and afforded extremely limited if any access to meaningful programming of any kind.” A sample set of Pelican Bay SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) prisoners that he interviewed expressed overwhelming loneliness and anxiety as well as anger and confusion, even after twenty years of the solitary confinement being their “normal.”
  3. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, based on data from 2011-2012, almost 20% of all prison inmates have spent time in solitary confinement.
  4. In India, the trend is reversed: Male friends openly show affection by holding hands and even semi-embracing, but not female friends. Meanwhile, in South Korea, male friends and female friends alike may be seen expressing their philia love through physical touch.
  5. However you define close. The definition/cutoff may change based on where you are in the world and your gender. The friendship pyramid idea, described by Dr. Myles Munroe and summarized here is a good place to start a technical review of friendship development, if you’re interested.