Strokes and hugs are being edged out of our lives, with doctors, teachers and colleagues increasingly hesitant about social touching. Is this hypervigilance of boundaries beginning to harm our mental health?
When did you last touch someone outside your family or intimate relationship? I dont mean a brush of the fingers when you took your parcel from the delivery guy. I mean: when did you pat the arm or back of a stranger, colleague or friend? My own touch diary says that I have touched five people to whom Im not related in the past seven days. One was a newborn and two were accidental (that was the delivery guy). Touch is the first sense humans develop in the womb, possessed even of 1.5cm embryos. But somewhere in adulthood what was instinctive to us as children has come to feel awkward, out of bounds.
In countless ways social touch is being nudged from our lives. In the UK, doctors were warned last month to avoid comforting patients with hugs lest they provoke legal action, and a government report found that foster carers were frightened to hug children in their care for the same reason. In the US the girl scouts caused a furore last December when it admonished parents for telling their daughters to hug relatives because she doesnt owe anyone a hug. Teachers hesitate to touch pupils. And in the UK, in a loneliness epidemic, half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or touching a soul.
Sensing this deficit, a touch industry is burgeoning in Europe, Australia and the US, where professional cuddlers operate workshops, parties and one-to-one sessions to soothe the touch-deprived. At Cuddle Up To Me, a cuddle retail centre in Portland, Oregon, clients browse a 72-cuddle menu. Poses includes the Alligator, the Mamma Bear and, less appealingly, the Tarantino. In Japan, a Tranquility chair has been developed, its soft arms wrapping the sitter in a floppy embrace.
Is this what a crisis of touch looks like? And if so, what do humans risk losing, when we lose touch?
Of course we are moving away from touch! exclaims Francis McGlone, a professor in neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores university and a leader in the field of affective touch. He is worried. We have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health. He has heard of teachers asking children to stick on a plaster themselves, rather than touch them and risk a complaint. We seem to have been creating a touch-averse world, he says. Its time to recover the social power of touch.
Touch is commonly thought of as a single sense, but it is much more complex than that. Some nerve endings recognise itch, others vibration, pain, pressure and texture. And one exists solely to recognise a gentle stroking touch.