9th April 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

Alone together: the psychology of touch in a socially distanced world

Baby holding hands with elderly person

The power of touch

In a recent graphic story published in the New York Times, Kristen Radtke reflects on the current pandemic in light of her experience moving to a new city alone, a “driving city” with “very few sidewalks”. Finding herself feeling empty and alone, Radtke realises that in the month or two since she had moved to the city, she had not touched a single person. 

“The realization left me feeling gutted,” she writes, “as if something essential had been scraped away.”

Touch is an essential part of being human. It is the first sensory system to develop in all animal species, from six to eight weeks in a human embryo. 

“It’s really our first language,” explains massage therapist, Jane Anderson, “the communications that we give and receive through touch are the core of human bonds. The need is hardwired into our nervous system.”

We learn a lot from the way we are touched. In a study conducted by the Greater Good Science Center, two strangers were separated by a barrier and asked to convey a series of emotions to one another by touching the other’s arm. One participant would stick their arm through the barrier, and the other would attempt to guess which emotion they were conveying. Remarkably, participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60% of the time, whilst gratitude, anger, love and fear were rightly identified more than 50% of the times.

 “Touch provides its own language of compassion”, says Dacher Keltner, Ph.D, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, “a language that is essential to what it means to be human”.

The communications that we give and receive through touch are the core of human bonds. The need is hardwired into our nervous system.

Touch soothes us. Physical contact sends signals to the reward region of the brain – the orbitofrontal cortex – triggering the release of oxytocin (the “love hormone”). This makes us feel uplifted and increases feelings of trust of one another. At the same time, it lowers cortisol levels, which decreases feelings of stress. In an experiment conducted at the University of Virginia, 16 married women were told they would receive an electric shock. When they lay alone – an MRI scan revealed heightened activity in stress-related regions. But when holding someone’s hand, particularly if it were their partner’s hand, activity decreased. “Touch had turned off the threat switch”, Keltner explains.

“The effect of this simple gesture of social support is that the brain and body don’t have to work as hard, they’re less stressed in response to a threat,” said Dr. James A. Coan, the study’s lead author. 

This is why individuals who received more hugs from their partners have higher levels of oxytocin, lower cortisol levels, and reduced heart rate and blood pressure. Touch can also help the immune system. Hugging stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates the body’s white blood cell production, helping us fight infection and stay healthy. A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon university found that people who received regular hugs displayed fewer flu symptoms than those who were hugged less frequently. 

Connected but apart

The numerous positive effects of touching one another shows how deeply connected we are with another, on both a social and physiological level. In a TEDTalk, The Lethality of Loneliness, John Cacioppo explains that whilst we might look like independent entities, we are in fact interdependent, “connected across our lifespan to one another through a myriad of invisible forces, that, like gravity, are ubiquitous and powerful.”  The goal of adulthood, he states, “is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favour this outcome.” 

Yet in modern times, society has become increasingly atomised. It is now increasingly common to live alone, particularly in big cities, whilst more people are reporting to feeling lonely. Social isolation is dangerous. Cacioppo explains that loneliness can cause the brain to go into a state of self-preservation. The brain becomes hypervigilant; more alert and sensitive to the effects of threats. We become defensive and depressed, anxious and sleep deprived. 

So, what do we do in the present moment, where contrary to human instinct, to protect each other by reducing transmission of the coronavirus, we must stay apart? A few weeks ago, terms like “self-isolation” and “social distancing” were not even part of our vocabulary. In a few weeks, public law has infiltrated our most intimate spaces. We have been asked to change our behaviour, contact with one another barred by legislation around the world. We reach around for points of reference, but this feels incomparable to anything we have known before. As Radtke writes in her cartoon in the New York Times: “in a pandemic, the very thing we’re programmed to need is also what can harm us most.”

In a pandemic, the very thing we’re programmed to need is also what can harm us most.

Alone together 

As our calendars fill up with zoom meeting after zoom meeting, we are led to wonder: can this ever make up for the loss of physical contact? Can any amount of virtual book groups or yoga sessions or WhatsApp group chats fill the space of a handshake, a hug, a holding of the hand?

Despite numerous studies indicating to us that social media is making us feel, paradoxically, less connected to one another, recent experiments suggest this isn’t necessarily true. In 2018, a study of older adults revealed that individuals who used video chat platforms such as Skype and FaceTime had nearly half the estimated probability of depressive symptoms as those who used text-based communication. And contact doesn’t have to occur through video. Studies have shown that hearing the sound of a familiar voice can have similar neural and hormonal effects to physical touch; hearing a mother’s voice can offer a similar comfort as to giving an actual hug. These effects, however, were not observed by the sending and receiving of texts. 

“Passive experiences, no matter the medium, translate to feelings of disconnection and boredom,” an article in the New Yorker explains, “the greater the number of things we have pulling at our attention, the less we are able to meaningfully engage, and the more discontented we become”. 

In other words, perhaps the problem isn’t technology itself, but the way we are using it. Rather than endlessly scrolling through Facebook or liking Instagram posts, we should use this time to meaningfully engage with family and friends. This doesn’t mean coming together more; it means coming together more thoughtfully. It means reflecting on the purpose of our virtual interactions: what do we want to get across, what do we want to feel or achieve, what forms should they take? And crucially; things don’t have to look the same online as they did offline.  “In this time specifically,” says conflict mediator, Priya Paker, “the biggest way to actually create a meaningful gathering for your community is to first ask: what is the need, what is the need for this specific community at this specific moment in time.” 

This doesn’t mean coming together more; it means coming together more thoughtfully.

As we adjust to our new realities, we cannot pretend that any number of virtual interactions can replace those in real life. But whilst a world without touch is difficult, thankfully, technology means that we are not alone. We have a universe of contacts at our fingertips. If we take the time to think about what our groups and communities mean to us – whether we are scheduling a Zoom conference or a House Party catch up – we can find ways to stay connected; alone but together.


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