The Sunday Magazine

Hungry for touch? You're not alone — the pandemic is making us crave skin-to-skin contact, says neuroscientist

Neuroscientist Aikaterini Fotopoulou was part of a team that created and analyzed The Touch Test. She explains why touch is important and what happens when people are deprived of that interaction.

But Aikaterini Fotopoulou reassures us there’s little risk of long-term effects

Neuroscientist Aikaterini Fotopoulou was part of a team that created and analyzed The Touch Test. She explains why touch is important and what happens when people are deprived of that interaction. (Photo Illustration/CBC News)

Touch is a silent sensation. And before COVID-19, various forms of touch in people's daily lives — hugs, handshakes, picking up objects — were probably automatic gestures.

"Now we are aware [of touch] in at least two new ways," neuroscientist Aikaterini Fotopoulou told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay. "We pay attention to every little instance, either of touch or lack thereof."

A professor of psychodynamic neuroscience at University College London, Fotopoulou was part of a team that created and analyzed The Touch Test, which underlined the importance of touch and how its absence during the pandemic is affecting people.

Fotopoulou says that touch plays a crucial role in people's physical well-being. (Submitted by Aikaterini Fotopoulou)

Why touch makes people tick

Commissioned by London's Wellcome Collection museum in collaboration with the BBC, The Touch Test was a self-selecting study with nearly 40,000 participants from 112 different countries. It was conducted using an online questionnaire between Jan. 21 and March 30, 2020.

It found that as the pandemic progressed, even those who lived with other people began craving more touch.

"You have your husband or wife and your children at home. But your extended family — maybe you're not seeing [them]," said Fotopoulou. "You're more acutely aware of missing your normal ways of interacting with others."

She said that on average, the skin-to-skin contact people have missed the most during the pandemic has been friendly touch like hugs. Some people also noted that they even missed professional touch like handshakes, though to a lesser extent.

She explained that the brain responds to touch in two ways. First, it identifies what the person is touching — such as a surface like glass or wood. Second, it hones in on the feelings that touch invokes such as comfort, safety, or danger.

"This latter set of information is what we call emotional or affective touch. It's very much about social relationships, skin-to-skin touch," she said.

Humans, like other mammals, are born bathed in touch.- Aikaterini Fotopoulou

How people process the lack of touch

"Most of us humans haven't really experienced, even if we are adults, a period with such touch deprivation as we are experiencing now," said Fotopoulou. So far, much of the research on skin-to-skin touch was limited to animals in labs, she added.

The research found that young animals isolated from the touch of their parents got sicker, suffered increased anxiety and were prone to dying sooner than those who were not isolated.

Fotopoulou's research explores similar phenomena in humans. She's exploring how people who have felt pain or experienced social rejection react when someone touches. She's found that if the touch is affective, feelings of physical or emotional pain, or social rejection are "down-regulated" or soothed.

It also plays a crucial role in physical well-being.

"Humans, like other mammals, are born bathed in touch … There is no way somebody can feed a baby without touch, which is how all our basic survival, and social and general learning happens in childhood. So we really have no model of existing healthily without touch," she said.

We will adapt to whatever our conditions are, even within a long time.- Fotopoulou

How to satiate 'touch hunger'

The Touch Test also revealed that the lack of touch is making people crave it more. Fotopoulou explained that this hunger for touch is related to the brain's desire system.

"It's the idea that you are habituated to a certain level and kind of touch," she said. "If you go through a prolonged period of lacking this kind of touch, then you might develop craving feelings as you would when you go hungry for a long time."

But no need to despair: Fotopoulou said that there's no evidence to suggest touch deprivation will have serious, long-term effects.

"Even if this difficult situation lasts for another year or even more, we have thousands of years of evolution behind us," she said. "That makes sure that we can be resilient for a short period. And we will adapt to whatever our conditions are, even within a long time."

Fotopoulou found that there are ways to stave off the short-term effects as well, such as stress and loneliness.

Perhaps surprisingly, her research found that viewing the act of touch partially substitutes the actual sensation.

"For example, when we watch a movie and see two humans touch each other, we've found in the scanner that the brain activates some of the same mechanisms it uses when it perceives touch on the skin — including effective, pleasant touch on the skin," she said.

Six months ago, one of her co-researchers showed people clips of human-to-human, human-to-pet and even human-to-robot touch. Fotopoulo said they found that human-to-human touch, in particular, led to reductions in anxiety, a greater tolerance of isolation and fewer feelings of loneliness.

They also studied self touch, such as giving oneself a hug. While it had a positive effect, they found that it wasn't as impactful as viewing human touch.

Before COVID-19, people may not have actively thought about skin-to-skin contact. But the global pandemic's need for physical and social distancing have brought it to the forefront of people's minds.

"There's a sense of psychological gravity that's missing. It's like you're seeking confirmation that things are real," said Fotopoulou.

"There's something about touch. Even though it's silent, it's extremely potent and gives us confirmation that things are not just what we see from afar."

Interview produced by Jessica Linzey

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