When touch becomes taboo

Recently I read this super interesting article from Laura Curcianelli* , a researcher spending her most precious time on investigating touch. I deeply appreciate her for that! Her article is pretty long, but luckily for you I wrote a resume. Of course if you like to read the full text, you can find it here.

Laura Curcianelli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Brain, Body and Self Lab in the Department of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Research Department of Clinical, Educational, and Health Psychology at University College London.

There is no care, there is no cure, without touch

"Touch is the first sense by which we encounter the world, and the final one to leave us as we approach death’s edge." It comes before sight and before speech. The 2020 pandemic makes touch the ultimate taboo. People who suffer from COVID-19 loose their sense of smell and taste, but touch is the sense that is diminished for almost all of us. It is the sense that has paid the highest price.

Touch is at the base of any care and nurturance, both the instrumental touch needed for assisting, bathing, dressing, etc. as well as the expressive touch that communicates and provides support and comfort.

For most children and adolescents social networking, instead of present touch, had already become the primary source of social interaction. Also, the #MeToo movement has brought touch-scepticism on a global level: it can be a weapon that men use to impose their power over women. Since then professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers and salespeople are guided against being too hands-on.

At the same time, studies show that touch improves the quality of our encounters and gives us a more positive experience. For example, we are more likely to give a generous tip to a waiter who touches our shoulder.

We are born fully accessorised to make the most of touch. It is always mutual: you can't touch without being touched back. Also for docotors and nurses it is the ultimate way to connect and communicate when all other senses are taken away.

In this pandemic touch is a proven vector, but paradoxically also part of the cure.

The need to touch

In the 90's multiple studies showed that orphan children who were barely touched had cognitive and behavioural deficits later on, as well as significant differences in brain development. Gentle touch also increased the amount of food intake in a group of institutionalised elderly adults. There is a proven higher risk to die early when we're touch deprived. Touch reduces stress levels significantly and it facilitates the release of oxytocin, which plays a vital role in our relationship with ourselves and each other. This hormone is called 'the glue of the senses', meaning it helps us perceive the world as a coherent picture (multisensory integration) and creates our sense of body ownership. In other words, it keeps us grounded to a physical body that is ours.

As a newborn we are completely helpless and depend primarily on tactile contact and being held. Infants and parents are meant to have lots of skin-to-skin contact and it has been proven to be crucial for development.

Recent study showed that mothers who are less aligned or responsive to their babies tend to use more rough and restrictive touch. Infants also tend to reciprocate: they are more likely to use aggresive touch towards their mothers if this is the way they were touched. Touch is a language that we learn from early age.

More studies showed that:

  • slow touch communicates love for most of us, even when it comes from a stranger;

  • a firm handshake was a key indicator of succes in job interviews;

  • there is a close link between social touch and mental health, as proven by a study with people with anorexia nervosa.

When touch becomes taboo

Physical distancing leaves invisible scars on our skin. Most people mention 'hugging my loved ones' as the first thing they'll do when the pandemic is over. Currently a project based at the University College London is exploring how digital practices such as 'Likes' and emoji's could extend to tactile feedback. For example, a sensor can become soft and warm when the person on the other side wants to let me feel their presence. These devices have huge potential, especially since 15 % of people worldwide lives alone and more and more of us die alone too.

Yet these devices should be complementary. The magic of physically intimate moments is shared at the same time, at the same space, with another human being. It's accompanied by smell, sound and body temperature.

When we deprive ourselves from touch we lose one of the most sophisticated languages we speak. It's our opportunity to build new relationships and maintain the ones we have.

A better world is often just a hug away.

#Theneedtotouch #Whentouchbecomestaboo

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