How to stay in touch with our basic senses in isolation

Working and studying from home mean much more time spent in front of screens, which we counterbalance with hands-on activities. Dr. Christine Law offers tips for managing eye strain from extra screen time; and neuroscientist Victoria Abraira explains why touch is so important to us as social beings.
Overwhelmed with the amount of screen time during the pandemic, many Canadians turned to tactile experiences like gardening or cooking. (Guy Leblanc/CBC/Radio-Canada)

A month into the shelter-in-place orders in Canada, any previous limits on screen time have been rendered useless: much of our work, school and social interactions are now virtual, so when we're not staring at a computer screen, we're occupied by our smartphone, and vice versa. 

All this screen time is causing us to seek more tactile experiences — from making bread to planting victory gardens to painting — to occupy our hands instead of our eyes. 

Neuroscientist Victoria Abraira studies how touch shapes our social brain. (Submitted)

These hands-on activities are a natural way for people to re-engage their sense of touch during periods of physical distancing and isolation, says neuroscientist Victoria Abraira. 

"When we do isolate that sense, we tend to gravitate toward things that really stimulate it," Abraira told Spark host Nora Young.

Public health recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19 repeatedly warn us against touching anything or anyone — our faces, doorknobs, other people. People self-isolating at home further limit most of their daily tactile experiences to keyboards and smartphone screens. 

All of this contributes to what Abraira calls "touch isolation," reduced stimulation of a fundamental human sense. 

"I hope that by everyone experiencing some sort of touch isolation, the sense of touch will be shuffled to the forefront of our minds, in really believing it as a really important sense to help us navigate our environment and help us interact with one another." 

Abraira, who is an assistant professor at Rutgers University's Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience and Principal Investigator at the Abraira Lab, recommends paying more attention to things that feel good on the skin as a way to remedy touch isolation — especially for people who might find themselves home alone for extended periods of time.

PEI resident Donovan McNeely used his time inside to bake up his first loaf of bread. Many Canadians are turning to hands-on activities like baking during physical distancing. (Donovan McNeely)

"Even though we might not have those contacts from another human being, you can still stimulate your skin," she said. "So you might, for example, be washing dishes more, as a way to get that tactile experience. I find myself taking more baths. Just connecting with your skin and thinking of your skin as an organ you have to take care of every day."

For pet owners, Abraira says a beloved animal is a good substitute for human connection in terms of eliciting a feel-good neurological reaction. "You get the same response from touching a pet than if you touch a human being in terms of the release of oxytocin in your brain," she explained. 

All eyes on screens

Ophthalmologist Christine Law recommends observing the 20/20/20 rule to give your eyes a break. (Live&breathe Photography by Stephanie Buck)

Introducing a variety of tactile activities may mitigate touch isolation, but it still doesn't address the risk of eye strain from increased screen time. 

Ophthalmologist Christine Law recommends observing the "20/20/20" rule to give your eyes a break: every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break to look 20 feet away. 

"Even though it's just a short period of time, that will give your eyes a little bit of a break from looking at that screen, which is the same distance for potentially 10-12 hours straight," Dr. Law, an assistant professor at the department of ophthalmology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., explained.

"Hopefully you can still take a coffee break, and try to physically step away from your computer and your phone. Don't carry your computer or your phone with you to pick up your coffee or to get your mug. That will force you to actually take a break from your screen."

It's also important to try and make your home work or study space as ergonomic as the circumstances allow, Dr. Law says, since it's likely that the physical distancing measures will be in place for a while, and those who can work and study remotely will need to continue to do so. She suggests positioning the screen at eye level to avoid hunching over.

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Another suggestion is to look at ways to modify the technology and furniture you currently have at home. "I know we are all limited right now by what we have at home, and we can't necessarily rush out and buy something fit just for what we need at home," Dr. Law said. 

She recommends using accessibility features available on most smartphones, such as increasing the font and icon size and changing the screen contrast, to avoid potential eye strain. Changing the font size can also be a good interim solution for people who cannot visit an eye doctor at this time, but their prescription may have changed, Dr. Law said. 

For parents who might be worried about their school-aged children spending too much time with screens, Dr. Law says that it's best that children maintain a routine with their schoolwork — even if that means more screens during the day. 

"After the school day is done, there are still many many hours left in a day before they go to sleep, so trying to take a family walk outside and take a break after they've finished their school before allowing them to do recreational screen time — and try to limit that, if possible, to two hours per day," she said. 

To hear more of the conversations with Christine Law and Victoria Abraira, click the 'listen' button at the top of the page.