Only about halfway through the 20th century did American scientists understand that touch was important. Before then, distance was the name of the game. The psychologist John Watson proclaimed that authoritarian parenting sparse on touch was the only way to ensure children would grow into strong, well-adjusted adults. The behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner had his baby daughter sleep and play in a climate-controlled incubator for two years, to help ease the burdens of parenting and to protect her from disease. In orphanages, babies were typically held only while they were fed or bathed. Stringent cleaning routines did cut down on the spread of infection, but no matter how much caretakers scrubbed the cribs, or how much they tried to isolate the children, they found the babies couldn’t kick their colds. Their recovery took longer and longer, if they recovered at all.
We know, now, that touch can influence the immune system and bonds us to one another. But touch is a lot more complicated when much of the world is on lockdown. It’s extremely dangerous for health-care workers, grocery-store workers, and other essential personnel who are not able to stay home. Hugs, back pats, and handshakes already feel like actions a world away. In situations where touch is safe, being intentional with it—utilizing it as we might other supplies we’ve stockpiled—can be essential. For those who are part of a household with other people, thinking about how to receive this necessary touch is “really important, especially [in dealing] with anxiety,” says Melissa A. Fabello, an educator who has studied touch patterns in young women with eating disorders.
“It’s all about stimulating the response reception in the skin, which leads to a whole physical reaction that slows the nervous system down,” Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute, told me. If you’re sheltering alone, Field said, “I’m encouraging people to self-massage, which has the same benefit of activating receptors under your skin. Even just walking around your living room, you’re stimulating the pressure receptors in your feet.”
Thinking about how our relationship with touch might morph amid a pandemic, I asked people to share memories of their most affecting experiences with touch. Their answers demonstrate that many of our most resonant interactions are those we can—literally—feel.
“I used to wash hair at a salon. One woman would moan slightly when I touched her head. She found ways to extend her hair-washing time, which I was already extending because she obviously needed it. One day she told me, ‘My husband is dead and I have no children or grandchildren; you’re the only one who touches me.’”
“There’s this one area of my back on my upper left side, right on the bone, that always itches. I can’t reach it with my own fingers. I’m stubbornly independent, but this itch requires another human hand in order to get relief. And when someone finds the spot (there’s a lot of direction on my end) and scratches it, it is the fiercest, most sincere pleasure. The kind that makes me feel a little in love with whatever hand is at work. Thing is, the more someone scratches, the more intense the itch. Eventually, their hands get tired. And I’m grateful to them for trying, sad they’re gone. The itch might be a nerve-related thing or a dry-skin thing, according to the internet. Honestly, I wonder if my back really itches at all or if I’ve made it up. It’s nice to need a hand, and to miss it.”
“At the end of a 12-step meeting, we stand and grab the hands of strangers or friends on either side of us. Somebody says, “Take us out,” and that means to start a prayer. We pray together, including many of us who don’t believe in God. I feel, always, such gentleness and yet such solid commitment in the way we hold each other. I’ve been at a meeting at least once a week for 26 years, and since we can’t meet in person right now, we’re doing Zoom meetings and phone check-ins. I’m thinking now about the privilege of the circle, how I’ve never worried what was on those hands, and how those palms and fingers saved me.”
“I work with children who are deaf-blind, and I think a lot about one little girl who had developed a lot of self-injurious behaviors, banging and hitting her head constantly. The first time I met her, her teachers and team said that she was very resistant to touch, and would scratch or bite whenever someone approached her. She lay curled up in a ball on a wooden part of the floor, so I sat about four feet away from her and started to rhythmically tap on the floor, pausing every 15 seconds or so. At first, she was startled and curled up tighter, but after a few rounds of this, she started to calm down. I scooted a foot closer and resumed the routine. By the time I got to about a foot from her, she had relaxed completely, and started to explore with her hands. She bumped my knee, and from there found my hand, my arm, and my face. She thought my beard was hilarious, and laughed aloud—the first time her teachers had seen her laugh.”
“When my son died of a drug overdose, everyone kept their distance. For months. Family, friends, even those closest to me were suddenly missing in action and at a loss for words. I felt like a leper—that my grief was somehow contagious. I sat frozen and emotionless in my house, staring at walls for weeks. One afternoon my doorbell rang, and it was a distant friend, someone I barely knew. When I opened the door, she said nothing, but simply wrapped her arms around me. Now, some 16 years later, I remember everything about that moment and how it saved my life.”
“I realized after starting my first sexual relationship—falling asleep spooning—that between the ages of 11 and 19, I had not been cuddled even once. Sleeping with another person and feeling their warmth made me drunk with love, and shocked that I had not had it for so long. I realized that I didn’t want sex as much as I wanted to be cuddled. Now, as a mother, I hope to give my children all the cuddles they’ll consent to during those desert years.”
“I work as an end-of-life doula and death educator, and I recently had a patient who was mostly deaf and blind. At our first meeting, I quickly discovered that the thing he enjoyed most was touch. I could warm up my hands, take his, and he would just coo about how nice it was. The most comforting thing I could do for him was hold his hand. It was really that simple. I think touch is one of the most precious things we can offer another person, and supplying it to others—or denying it—says a lot about how we feel about each other.”
“There is nothing that makes me feel happier than expressing my love through touch. But since moving to a new country, I have nobody to touch, and there’s nobody to touch me. What can I do? I find myself doing the most embarrassing things when I am alone. Sometimes I put my palms on both my cheeks and pretend that someone else is holding my face, because that gesture, that sensation of my face being held, evokes a feeling of being loved for me. Or I clasp my hands when I am falling asleep and pretend someone is holding my hand. It’s so embarrassing to confess that. But it’s true. They say we need to love ourselves first, right? I try to do that.”
“As a graduate student in Iowa City, I joined Iowa’s Brazilian–jiu-jitsu club. It was the dead of winter; the ground had frozen over and would not thaw. We walked to class in parkas. We barely saw bare skin. The first day of jiu-jitsu, by contrast, was a sweaty half-naked mess, full of me and undergraduate boys in a badly insulated room in an old field house. At first it seemed comically uncomfortable to press myself up against 18-year-olds who could have been taking my creative writing classes. But I felt so charged afterward that I started to crave it. We wrapped our bodies around one another for 90 minutes within this structured set of rules. It was animal and exhausting and cognitively difficult, because jiu-jitsu, at which I am very bad, requires so much choreography. It was like reverting to something lost. It made me doubt the way I lived outside that room.”