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Can we live without human contact?

| Friday, October 30, 2020

I don’t know about you, but I really miss hugging people when I greet them. When I’m having a tough day or I’m feeling overwhelmed, a tight hug has always made me feel better. During the pandemic, I, among many others, I presume, have noticed a strangely stealthy gaping absence in our lives: human touch. From leaning into a friend as you howl with laughter to holding hands or hugging friends to shaking hands with a new acquaintance, human touch has been immensely restricted as we try to adhere to the rules and protocols of the CCD.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and one of the leading experts in the fight against COVID-19 in the U.S., told the Wall Street Journal podcast that he doesn’t think Americans should ever shake hands again. Customs like shaking hands and hugging may be changed forever. The shift in how we physically connect is apparent and will prevail for a long time as our communities struggle  to reintroduce in-person interactions without putting anyone’s physical or mental health in jeopardy.

“I think we might be afraid for a while and that’s okay,” Paul Zak, a professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, said. “Everyone’s not going to return to baseline at the same rate and some people maybe never will and that’s also okay. Everybody should be open to people being a little more socially distant and not touching as much. Some of it will return and some of it won’t.”

How does this translate in our lives as we struggle to balance literal survival with all the things that make surviving worthwhile? 

The New York Times’ research for “What All That Touch Deprivation Is Doing to Us” reveals that when asked what specific touch they missed, the people interviewed mostly answered one thing: “Hugs.”

“Touch is not experienced as a single physical modality, as sensation, but effectively, as emotion,” anthropologist Ashley Montagu claims. Dr. Tiffany Field seemingly agrees with this idea and even calls touch “the mother of all senses.” In her book, “Touch,” she argues that “touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damned near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch.” 

According to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, a lack of physical touch can affect people in more ways than they might realize. “Touch is the fundamental language of connection,” Keltner said. “When you think about a parent-child bond or two friends or romantic partners, a lot of the ways in which we connect and trust and collaborate are founded in touch.”

Building off of that, it becomes clear that human touch and connectedness play a vital role in improving our mental and physical health. The emotional support provided by social connections can foster a sense of meaning and purpose as well as alleviate stress and anxiety. “This connectedness generates a positive loop of social, emotional and physical well-being,” Dr. Emma Seppala of Stanford Medicine said.

“Big parts of our brains are devoted to making sense of touch and our skin has billions of cells that process information about it,” Keltner said. “The right type of friendly touch — like hugging your partner or linking arms with a dear friend — calms your stress response down. [Positive] touch activates a big bundle of nerves in your body that improves your immune system and helps you sleep well. It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.”

As these challenging times test our limits and throw hurdles in our way, it becomes critical to lean on one another and capitalize on the power of community. Moreover, it is also important that these challenges don’t stray us away from one another all the way into solitude. Social connectedness and human touch will look very different from now on, but with more restrictions and with tougher boundaries we now have to improvise and get creative because no matter what, we all need that tight hug on tough days. No matter what, we need each other — now more than ever.

Krista Akiki is a sophomore at Notre Dame majoring in Business Analytics. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel-lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she navigates college life and stands up for the issues she believes. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @kristalourdesakiki. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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