No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?

Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

When did you last touch someone outside your family or intimate relationship? I don’t mean a brush of the fingers when you took your parcel from the delivery guy. I mean: when did you pat the arm or back of a stranger, colleague or friend? My own touch diary says that I have touched five people to whom I’m not related in the past seven days. One was a newborn and two were accidental (that was the delivery guy). Touch is the first sense humans develop in the womb, possessed even of 1.5cm embryos. But somewhere in adulthood what was instinctive to us as children has come to feel awkward, out of bounds.

In countless ways social touch is being nudged from our lives. In the UK, doctors were warned last month to avoid comforting patients with hugs lest they provoke legal action, and a government report found that foster carers were frightened to hug children in their care for the same reason. In the US the girl scouts caused a furore last December when it admonished parents for telling their daughters to hug relatives because “she doesn’t owe anyone a hug”. Teachers hesitate to touch pupils. And in the UK, in a loneliness epidemic, half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or touching a soul.

Sensing this deficit, a touch industry is burgeoning in Europe, Australia and the US, where professional cuddlers operate workshops, parties and one-to-one sessions to soothe the touch-deprived. At Cuddle Up To Me, a cuddle “retail centre” in Portland, Oregon, clients browse a 72-cuddle menu. Poses includes the Alligator, the Mamma Bear and, less appealingly, the Tarantino. In Japan, a “Tranquility chair” has been developed, its soft arms wrapping the sitter in a floppy embrace.

Is this what a crisis of touch looks like? And if so, what do humans risk losing, when we lose touch?

“Of course we are moving away from touch!” exclaims Francis McGlone, a professor in neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores university and a leader in the field of affective touch. He is worried. “We have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health.” He has heard of teachers asking children to stick on a plaster themselves, rather than touch them and risk a complaint. “We seem to have been creating a touch-averse world,” he says. “It’s time to recover the social power of touch.”

Touch is commonly thought of as a single sense, but it is much more complex than that. Some nerve endings recognise itch, others vibration, pain, pressure and texture. And one exists solely to recognise a gentle stroking touch.

Known as c tactile afferents, this last is the one that McGlone has studied for years. To find it, a needle is inserted into the skin to “fish”. “It’s like sitting on the banks of the river,” McGlone says. “One’s a pain fish. One’s an itch fish.” Hours can pass before anyone catches a gentle touch nerve, but this elusive fibre has helped to teach scientists why humans need touch.

By watching the nerve’s discharge behaviour while the skin is stroked, scientists have learned that the optimum speed of a human caress is 3cm to 5cm a second.

This may sound like a diverting snippet of touch trivia, but its application is far-reaching. When a parent strokes a child, for instance, “they are writing out the script that was laid down by 30 million years of evolution,” McGlone says. “We are destined to cuddle and stroke each other at predetermined velocities.” The pleasantness encourages us to keep touching, nourishes babies and binds adults, and threads wellbeing into the fabric of our being. It could also teach us more about the touch-averse, including how and when autism and eating disorders develop, and even lead us to a cure for loneliness.

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