The pre-eminence of touch
Updated: Mar 4
Touch is as necessary to human survival as food and water. So says an article in the The Economist magazine quoting Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the U.S Miller School of Medicine. 'It is the first sense to develop and the only one necessary for survival. We can live with the loss of sight or hearing. But without touch, which enables us to detect such stimuli as pressure, temperature and texture, we would be unable to walk or feel pain. Our skin is the vehicle through which we navigate the world.'
The article describes a Canadian convict locked up alone, Peter Collins, who had craved so intensely the touch of another human on his skin that he pretended the flies walking on his skin were his wife's fingers. 'But not until the pandemic,' the article goes on, 'with its widespread social distancing, have such vast swathes of the population been deprived of friendly physical contact for so long.'
It argues that humans need touch to form close relationships. To improve its chances of survival, Homo Sapiens evolved to live in groups. Humans 'need to interact with each other,' explains Alberto Gallace, a psychobiologist at the University of Milano-Bicocca, which may explain why, like other social animals, they have developed a neurological system designed to respond to affectionate touch.
Just as the importance of touch starts early – in the womb – so positive health effects continue. Touch depresses levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. A lack of touch, by contrast, is damaging. Children who are not cuddled tend to develop certain cognitive skills later than their peers. A lack of touch may fuel aggression. Without regular contact, people can become 'skin hungry', a state in which they experience less touch than they want. A survey of 509 adults from around the world in 2014 suggested that being deprived of touch was linked to loneliness, stress, mood and anxiety disorders and secondary immune disorders.
The article maintains that the 'pandemic supercharged that.' In a poll of 260 Americans who had been under lockdown for a month last April conducted by Dr Field, 60% said that they longed for physical contact. It concludes, 'People need to touch people, not just screens.'
The Economist, 20 February 2021 (pp. 50 and 51)