The Importance Of Touch

I recently thought about why I enjoy watching TV with my son. It’s not really about what we are watching (currently re-runs of Modern Family, which followed bingeing Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, Friends, Scrubs). But it is rather the physicality of watching TV with him. See, he pretty much sits on top of me, and is prone to bursts of activity like elbowing me, holding my hand, or slapping me (gently!). It’s this constant forms of touch that are heart-warming.

This must tap into some primordial need that we have. After all, our first sense to be developed as a baby is touch. It’s something we can’t switch off, unlike (say) closing your eyes. Yet our technology and consumer culture tend to over-stimulate the other senses – screens, music, TV, and fashion stimulate our vision and hearing, while food culture and cosmetics stimulate our taste and smell.

There was the famous case of Romanian orphans, who after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were found to be under-developed. Much of this was linked to the absence of touch for the infants. Scientists later found that this led to spikes in stress, which in turn weakened the children’s immune systems. Similar research has been found with adults. The punch-line being that without touch – you end up more stressed, less friendly, and sicker.

Ironically, one of the studies on this looked at how people coped with the cold virus depending on whether they were isolated or physically interacted with others. They found that the group that was exposed to touch recovered faster than the isolated group. Of course, in our COVID world, one of the biggest casualties has been touch. No doubt, some of the emotional challenges and mental health issues associated with the lockdown are likely due to the absence of touching.

The silver lining, though, could be that we may start to appreciate the importance of touch. Already, culture had been moving away from touch as we interact through screens. Perhaps, the complete absence of touch during the lockdown, will make us re-evaluate the importance of touch. So, when things normalise, we may prefer to give someone a hug, rather than send them a smiley emoji.

Bilal

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