What Happens When We Can’t Touch Each Other? Skin Hunger

Photographed by Refinery29.
Humans need to be touched. 
At least, they do in order to function well. Two-hundred years ago, French scientists found a child they named Victor running through the forest. He was socially maladjusted and initially deemed an “idiot.” However, it was later determined that he had been severely neglected and suffered from a near total lack of touch, which had horribly stunted his development
A more common example of what happens when we’re deprived of physical contact comes from the 1950s, when Harry Harlow conducted an experiment with baby monkeys. They were taken from their mother and given to either a “mother” made of wires, or a soft and cuddly “mother” made of terrycloth. In some cases the wire mother had food, in others, the soft, cuddly mother did. The study postulated the monkeys would gravitate to whichever “mother” had the food. They didn’t. Regardless of whether or not it had food, the monkeys overwhelming preferred the mother they could hug. Psychological Science noted that, “these studies produced groundbreaking empirical evidence for the primacy of the parent-child attachment relationship and the importance of maternal touch in infant development.” 
Advertisement
So touch is important to still-developing children, then, you might say. But, as adults, who really needs it? 
Everyone. While the need for touch becomes less essential for our emotional development — you will likely not turn feral if you’re untouched as an adult — it doesn’t dissipate entirely with age. 
There’s evidence to suggest touch decreases incidents of aggression. A study regarding the rate of friendly touches between peers in France and the U.S. found that French teens touched each other in friendly ways (like hugging, patting on the back, etc.) far more than their American counterparts. The French kids touched others 110 times in 30 minutes, the American kids two times in 30 minutes. The American teens didn’t stop craving touch, but instead of touching their peers, they fidgeted more, wrapped their arms around themselves, cracked their knuckles, etc. The study similarly found that, “high-touch cultures have relatively low rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence.” 
Meaning, if people don’t touch each other gently, there’s an increased risk they’re going to touch each other harmfully, in, say, a bar fight. 
That’s true in the primate world, too. Chimps don’t merely groom each other to keep each other clean — they do it to establish bonds of friendship. Chimps are seen sharing food with other chimps who are seen grooming them, even when there is no relation between the two. 
It’s consistently found that touch, even something as simple as a handshake, lowers stress levels, and enables trust and enduring friendships. It helps humans thrive, too. A study of the NBA found that teams whose players touch each other (whether through high fives, fist bumps, or hugs) for even two seconds before game-time actually win more games.
Advertisement
That’s not surprising. Touch is shown to lower cortisol levels, thus reducing people’s stress levels. It’s one reason why people instinctively want to hold someone’s hand when they’re frightened. 
It’s also why shaking hands before a meeting, and immediately lowering everyone’s stress levels, is a good idea. Handshakes evolved to demonstrate that people were not holding a weapon and were thus safe, but they also make you feel safer around someone just by being a kind of touch.
So it’s ironic that as we enter our second full month of needing as many stress-reduction techniques as possible that we are also experiencing a time when our touch is far more limited than perhaps ever before. There are no hugs as casual greetings, no high fives, not even the handshakes that once felt formal and now read as impossibly tender. We also might not ever get those things back: Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “In a perfect world, Americans would stop shaking hands.” 
Some people have been quick to agree that handshakes are inessential. Other cultures don’t greet each other by touching the way Americans do. But it’s a very poorly informed view to assume that touch is not still important to people in those cultures. In Japan, it’s typical to greet your friends with a bow or waving hands, but there are also “cuddle cafes” where people can go to be hugged and held. According to Japan Info, those cafes "are a way of releasing stress and anxiety by getting a warm hug at the end of the day and is a service quite popular between office workers in Japan that feel the need to be comforted.” People who lack touch in any culture crave it. The Tokyo Weekender noted that, at elder homes, "with no or little human touch, fluffy robot seals and the like have been introduced at some facilities to stave off cravings for human touch.”
Advertisement
People are going to long to be touched because it's a part of being human. Of course, Fauci is correct regarding illness. Touches, like handshakes, do spread disease. Even in a post-coronavirus world, a decrease of casual touches, like handshakes, would help limit the spread of influenza in the winter. There are certainly people who will rejoice at the idea of a decrease of touch, but there are many who, especially now, are realizing how important it is to have physical contact with others on a regular basis.
About 10 percent of Americans live alone. If they are quarantining as safely as possible, they’re entirely on their own right now, and are going without any touch for weeks on end. 
If you are sitting at home alone, deprived of the even fleeting touches we experience when we hug our friends, or shake hands, or hold a niece or nephew, you’re almost very likely having your mood affected by it. 
That phenomenon is known as “touch starvation” or “skin hunger.” It’s known to cause depression, anxiety, and insomnia. People sometimes try to combat it by attempting to recreate the sensation of touch by wrapping themselves up in blankets, or taking long baths. If you’re alone and having difficulty being productive during the quarantine, it’s not that you’re lazy, it’s that you may well be suffering from touch deprivation. Our mood is bolstered by other human’s touch without us even realizing it most of the time. 
This isn’t an excuse to touch anyone without their consent. You should not run around lovingly stroking stranger’s faces in the midst of a pandemic, because they will rightly be terrified. But it does mean that, if you are feeling starved for human contact right now, you’re experiencing something deeply human and understandable. You may feel alone but you are, certainly, not alone. 
One possible solution to alleviate some sense of touch deprivation is to adopt a pet. Sure, they’re not fluffy robot seals (which sound very cool), but there are many, many pets available for fostering right now.
As rational as forgoing touch for the indefinite future may be from a purely practical standpoint, as soon as there is a vaccine for COVID-19, I think, far from sensibly forgoing inessential contact, a lot of people’s first impulse will be to hug their grandkids, their friends, and just about everyone else. It will be hard to condemn them for that — though hopefully, we'll all be a lot better at washing our hands after.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series