Online communication is a lifeline, but lack of touch and non-verbal cues have taken their toll

This week, a look back at stories that first aired in the early months of the pandemic that examine what we've learned about communication, and why in an online era we still need physical touch.

Over the past year, we've had to reimagine our relationship with our technologies — and each other.

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)

While we've adapted to different ways of communicating and interacting with one another thanks to the pandemic, we've also realized that even in an online era we still need physical touch.

One of the effects of prolonged social distancing is what neuroscientist Victoria Abraira calls "touch isolation."

Neuroscientist Victoria Abraira (Submitted)

"When we do isolate that sense, we tend to gravitate towards things that really stimulate it. And so, I wouldn't be surprised if people like we're doing are trying to re-engage that sense in different ways," Abraira told Spark host Nora Young in an interview earlier this year.

Being physically distant from each other had us craving a more tactile experience within the small world around us. Many took up baking, others knitting, among other analog activities.

Abraira, an assistant professor in cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University, runs a lab where she studies how our sense of touch and intricate connections between our skin and brains help us communicate with each other, and what can go wrong if that sense is disrupted. 

"Touch hasn't been studied in the same rigorous way as other senses. For every 100 papers on vision, there's only one on touch," she said.

But the studies that do exist show that touch is one of the few senses that can really tap into our cognitive, social brain, said Abraira. And people have become much more aware of that as a result of prolonged isolation.

Studies on the NBA and other sporting events show that teams that tend to touch each other more, like chest bumps, fist bumps, tend to cooperate a lot better and they tend to win more, said Abraira.

"There's something innate about the sense of touch that brings us closer together and allows us to work as a team better and you have to remember that we are extremely social creatures, and there's been such evolutionary pressures for us to cooperate and socialize with one another."

Abraira said that beyond direct benefits, we can also communicate complex emotions, like love, anger, just through simple touching of the forearm. And humans are uniquely tuned to be able to distinguish dozens of different emotions from someone just touching their forearm.

This highlights the importance of taking care of our skin, beyond just our faces, said Abraira, and stimulating the organ through tactile experiences, like baths or even washing the dishes.

Trust is key to improving the online experience 

Physical distancing and staying home have not only affected our bodies, but our minds as well.

Because of technology, we were able to move many of our interactions online, but that comes with its own set of possible problems.

Behavioral scientist Juliana Schroeder. (Submitted)

"Online communications tend to lack more of those non-verbal cues that we think of as being really critical in communication," said behavioural scientist Julianna Schroeder in a conversation back in April 2020. 

Earlier this year, along with a colleague, Schroeder, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a paper on staying online in a healthy way and examined four significant ways in which online and real-life encounters differ.

The four factors they identified were fewer non-verbal cues, more anonymity, more opportunity to form new social ties and bolster weak ties, and wider dissemination of information. 

Text-based online interactions fall short in this regard, says Schroeder. It often leads to misunderstandings. The synchronicity of voice-based communication is important to responsiveness, feeling understood and healthy interactions online.

Schroeder noted that because more people started using video conferencing technology during the pandemic, more of the nonverbal cues were now present in their regular online communications. Though some were still missing. "Touch and eye contact is another thing that you lose in a lot of these video conferencing technologies, which makes coordination quite difficult."

The way we interact online also affects our well-being, says Schroeder. More active engagement is associated with increased well-being, while passively browsing can lead to feelings of envy and loneliness, since we're not having real engagements that build on our own social life.

"It's kind of a strange relationship where it's like, 'I don't really know this person. I'm sort of seeing their life from a distance, but I feel kind of lonely because I don't actually interact with them in a meaningful way.'"

When it comes to building trust in online communication, especially when working from home has become the new norm, clearly defined work streams, setting goals and transparency are key, says Schroeder.

How technologies shape us

Humans and culture shape the technologies we create. But as interactions between tech and humans grow stronger, we're seeing that these technologies shape society and us.

For material scientist Ainissa Ramirez, our relationship with technology has been a point of interest for a while.

In The Alchemy of Us, Ainissa Ramirez chronicles eight life-changing inventions, and the inventors behind them. (The MIT Press/Submitted)

She says we should educate ourselves on the cultural and historical implications of inventions in order to be able to think critically about new technology. 

In her recent book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, Ramirez chronicles eight life-changing inventions, like the telegraph and lightbulb, and the inventors behind them.

"We don't think much about light bulbs. And we definitely don't think about telegraphs, but they were technologies of the time. And they were actually forces in shaping culture."

The telegraph has ripples today, said Schroeder. It influenced the way we write and speak. "It was limited by how much information it could shuffle through one direction and to another, you can think of it as a two-lane road."

As a result, information became terser, sentences became shorter.

"I wanted to give people an invitation to look at technology and to think about science. And I thought by looking at simple inventions, this might be a good way to introduce people to think a little bit more critically about the technologies in the future," she said.

Her own love of material science was spurred years ago, in university. "A professor said to me, 'The reason why my sweater is blue, the reason why we don't fall through the floor and the reason why the lights work, all has to do with the interaction of atoms. And if you can figure out how they do that, you can get them to do new things.'

"For me, that was sort of like when you're in a movie and there's a zoom effect and you focus on the person's face. I wasn't even listening to him anymore, I was just looking around me, like, 'This guy is telling me something that makes this puzzle piece, just completely fit.'"

Ramirez says she wants to help others to also start looking at the things around them in a different way.

Books about technology tend to loft the inventors and scientists as genius and untouchable, she says. "They're just love letters to technology. And that's fine — I love technology! But I don't think that is the full picture of how we should think about technology." 

Sometimes inventions can be used for purposes we don't intend, says Ramirez. And she explores these unintended consequences of technology in her book.

"We should be mindful of that even when we're creating it, because maybe there's a tweak we can put in the creation to make sure it doesn't go that way, or not be so enamoured with it and not think that it might be put to negative uses."

She said when it comes to building new technology, acknowledging internal biases, hiring a diverse team and having a large test base are important.