The power of touch

This is a slightly longer version of the article I published in last week’s Observer:

When was the last time you touched someone you don’t live with? One day last March, probably; you’re not sure of the date. Did you shake hands with a new colleague at work? Did your coat brush against another commuter’s on the train? Did someone bump your elbow and mutter an apology when rushing past you on an escalator? If you’d known that was the last time you’d make contact with the body of a stranger, you’d have paid more attention.

And what about the 8.2 million British adults who live on their own? Many will have gone nearly a year now without so much as a pat on the arm from another person. Touch is the sense we take most for granted, but we miss it when it’s gone. Psychologists have a term for the feelings of deprivation and abandonment we experience: “skin hunger”.

“Skin hunger” is not a phrase I had come across before last year, nor a problem I ever imagined facing. I am a socially awkward, non-tactile person. I have looked on nervously as, over the last two decades, hugging has moved from being a marginal pursuit to a constant of British social life. A hug feels to me like an odd mix of the natural and the artful. It is natural because bodily contact is the first, endorphin-releasing language we learn as babies and share with other apes. But it is also artful, because it has to be silently synchronised with someone else, unlike a handshake which can be offered and accepted asynchronously.

For the truly socially inept, even a handshake can be fiddly. I used to botch them all the time, offering the wrong hand (being left-handed didn’t help) or grabbing the other person’s fingers instead of their palm. Then, just as I had completed my long internship in handshaking, it began to lose currency and I had to hastily reskill in hugging. The best I could manage at first was a sort of bear-claw holdwith my arms hanging limply down my huggee’s back. It must have been like trying to cuddle a scarecrow. I got better at it; I had to. Now I find that I really miss hugging people. I even miss those clumsy, mistimed hugs where you bang bones together and it goes on just slightly too long or not long enough. And “hunger” feels the right word for it, in the sense that your body lets your mind know that something is up, and fills it with a gnawing sense of absence.

Aristotle considered touch the lowliest sense. He looked down on it because it was found in all animals and it relied on mere proximity, not the higher human faculties of thought, memory and imagination. But one could just as easily say that touch is the highest sense and for the same reasons. It isthe basicanimal instinct that lets us know we are alive in the world. It offers proof of the solidity of things other than ourselves.

Touch is our first sensation. The hand of a two-month-old human foetus will grasp when it feels something in its palm. A new-born baby will instinctively turn its head towards a touch on the cheek. All over the world, children play tag without having to learn how. The earliest forms of medicine drew on this human need to touch and be touched. The practice of healing massage emerged in India, China and Southeast Asia by the third millennium BCE, before spreading west. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, cured people by touching them. The word surgeon originally meant hand healer, from the Greek for hand (kheir) and work (ergon). In the gospels, Jesus cures the sick with the laying on of hands.

In recent years the caring professions have revived this practice of healing through touch. The tender touch of others is now known to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, decrease the level of stress hormones such as cortisol, and trigger the release of the same kind of opiates as painkilling drugs. Premature babies gain weight when rubbed lightly from head to foot. Massages reduce pain in pregnant women. People with dementia who are hugged and stroked are less prone to irritability and depression.

Our oldest myths speak of the lifegiving power of touch. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, visiting Hades, tries to hug his dead mother, Anticleia, so that they might “find a frigid comfort in shared tears”. But Anticleia is now a lifeless husk; she just slips through his arms like a hologram. Homer’s metaphor for the unbridgeable chasm between the living and the dead – a failed hug – feels newly resonant in the time of Covid. The Homeric underworld is a place of permanent lockdown, where the dead live on as unreachable, self-isolating ghosts.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy echoes this scene in its last book, The Amber Spyglass. Lyra tries to hug her friend Roger in the world of the dead, but he passes “like cold smoke through her arms”. Pullman’s trilogy is a hymn to the materiality of the human body. It deliberately inverts the traditional Christian story, in which our eternal souls triumph over our flawed, sinful flesh. Pullman’s angels long to have bodies like humans, to feel the world through the senses. His human characters have daemons, physical manifestations of their souls, which means that they can hold themselves in their armsthe way Lyra hugs her daemon Pan.

It is hard to read His Dark Materials now without thinking about how the pandemic has separated us from each other. The trilogy’s climax comes when Lyra and Will kiss and know each other with their bodies. But then they must part and return to their own worlds. They agree that at noon on every midsummer’s day they will both sit on a bench in Oxford’s Botanic Garden that exists in both their worlds. Lyra tells Will that if they ever meet again they’ll “cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart”.

The different worlds in Pullman’s work are divided by the thinnest of membranes. The strange new rituals of the past year have all been about trying to reach across such thin but absolute divides. Older couples stand in front gardens, waving at their grandchildren through windows and miming hugs. People embrace their relatives in care homes through “cuddle curtains”: plastic sheets with two pairs of sleeves, allowing them to hug without touching. In Zoom meetings, we smile and wave at the shapeshifting pixels on our screens because they resemble people we used to know and perhaps once touched.

The virus, by forcing us apart, reminds us of this inescapable fact: we live in our bodies. Maybe we had begun to forget this in a world that links us up in so many virtual, intangible ways. That miraculous piece of technology, the touchscreen, works through a desensitised, near-touchless touch. It smoothly responds to our prodding, pinching and swiping so that we may do our duty as good little online citizens, working, shopping and distracting ourselves endlessly. But as our fingers and thumbs glide across the uniform surface, there is no sensuality or responsiveness in the touch. For the skin hungry, this is thin gruel.

Touch is a universal language, but every culture has its own way of speaking it. In north Africa and the Middle East, men join their hands together in greeting, then kiss their own hands or hold them to the heart. The Congolese touch each other on the temples and kiss foreheads. In Tuvalu they sniff each other’s cheeks. Andaman islanders in the Bay of Bengal sit in each other’s laps and then, in farewell, lift the other person’s hand to their mouth and blow.

Britain, by contrast, has historically been a low-contact culture. One explanation for the rise of ballroom dancing in this country is that it gave shy strangers formal permission to hold each other. Studying the etiquette in a Bolton dance hall in 1938, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson noted that a man would ask a woman for a dance simply by touching her elbow and waiting for her to fall into his arms. This couple might dance the whole night without speaking, then go their separate ways.

In touch-deprived cultures, touching is no less important than in tactile ones. As we have learned over the past year, when people are starved of touch the slightest forms of contact become filled with meaning. The most charged moment in the film Brief Encounter (1945) comes when Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) can’t say goodbye properly, because an annoying acquaintance of Laura’s has gatecrashed their final farewell. So he softly squeezes her shoulder, a small gesture filled with doomed longing. A hesitant embrace can speak as potently as an ardent one. On 30 May 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay arrived back at advance base camp after climbing Everest. According to the expedition leader, John Hunt, they were welcomed with “handshakes – even, I blush to say, hugs”.

In 1966 the psychologist Sidney Jourard conducted a field study of couples sat in coffee shops around the world. He found that in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, couples touched each other – by hand-holding, back stroking, hair caressing or knee-patting – an average of 180 times per hour. In Paris, it was 110 times; in Gainesville, Florida, it was twice; in London, never.

Jourard concluded that Americans and Britons lived under a “touch taboo”. In the US this even extended to barbers using electric scalp massagers strapped to their hands so they did not touch their customers’ heads. Jourard wondered if the large number of massage parlours in British and American cities betrayed a need not being met in normal relationships. Many American motel rooms were equipped with “Magic Fingers”, a device which, on inserting a quarter, would slowly vibrate the bed. The machine, Jourard wrote, “has taken over another function of man – the loving and soothing caress”.

The new therapies that came out of California in the late 1960s sought to cure the English-speaking countries of their touchlessness. They prescribed generous doses of hugging. Bernard Gunther, of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur Hot Springs, taught full-body massage techniques as a path to sensory awakening. Some of Gunther’s more outré methods – mutual hair shampooing and the “Gunther hero sandwich” (a group of people spooning one another) – failed to catch on. But the massage therapists probably did help Britain and America become more tactile societies. By the 1980s, “Magic Fingers” machines had largely vanished from motel rooms.

In lockdown, the skin hungry have once again been forced to improvise inadequate technical fixes. They hug themselves, or hug pillows and duvets, or tuck in their bed blankets tightly at night. The robotics industry has tried to replicate the feel of human touch with Bluetooth-enabled “hug shirts” and silicone lips that allow you to hold and kiss someone remotely. But it’s not the same and never will be, however good the technology gets. Nothing substitutes for human touch.

As a teenager, the autistic writer and activist, Temple Grandin, longed to feel the pressure stimulation of a hug. Like many autistic people, though, she found being touched difficult. One day, visiting her aunt’s Arizona ranch, she saw cattle being put in a squeeze chute: a pen with compressing metal sides, which kept them calm while they were branded or castrated. Thus inspired, she made her own human “squeeze machine”. It had two wooden boards, upholstered with thick padding and joined by hinges. When she kneeled inside it and turned on an air compressor, it felt like being hugged. For Grandin, this was a useful staging post on the way to touching people. In her mid-twenties she learnt to shake hands. When she was sixty, her squeeze machine finally broke, and she didn’t bother to fix it. “I’m into hugging people now,” she said.

Real human touch is infinitely subtle and intricate – less a sense than a sensorium. Skin, which makes up nearly twenty per cent of our bodies, is our largest and most sensitive organ. An area of skin the size of a pound coin contains fifty nerve endings and three feet of blood vessels. The work of touch is done by sensory receptors, buried in the skin at different depths according to what kind of stimulus they detect, such as warmth, cold or pain. One of these receptors, the Pacinian corpuscle, responds to pressure and vibration. It can detect movements smaller than a millionth of a metre.

Everything we touch has its own specific shape, texture and firmness, its own special resistance to the pressure we place on it. Every hug feels different because everyone you hug takes up space in the world in a different way. No one else has quite the same contours, the same pleats and ripples in their clothes, the same warmth and weight, the same precise arrangement of flesh and bones. Your own body is a one-off, too. It folds into and nests with someone else’s in a way that no other body can.

“Sending hugs,” people say online – but you can’t send a hug. A virtual hug only whets the appetite for what you’re missing, just as looking at food when you’re hungry makes you hungrier. The feeling you’re trying to share in a hug is all wrapped up in its embodiment in space and time. A hug joins the physical and emotional so tightly together that you can’t tell them apart. The writer Pádraig Ó Tuama points out that an Irish way of saying hug is duine a theannadh le do chroí: to squeeze someone with your heart.

I wonder how it will feel when we can hug people again. Will we have to relearn the protocol, or will muscle memory kick in? Will our nerve endings have been deadened or hyper-sensitised by abstinence? Will we hug everyone too much and too hard, because our feeding habits have switched to feast-or-famine mode, like wolves who kill more than they can eat? One thing we do know now is that we are hardwired for touch. We were not meant to swerve away from each other in the street, or mime hugs through windows, or cuddle through walls of plastic. We were meant to hold people close, and feel the bones in their back and the rise and fall of their chests, and remind each other that we are warm bodies, still breathing, still alive.

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