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Touch Hunger

Making a positive case for touch — the most neglected of our senses.

Source: Pixabay

Convicted murderer Peter Collins died of cancer after 32 years in a Canadian prison. In that time, he became a champion of prison rights, and made a short film called Fly in the Ointment about a prolonged period that he spent in solitary confinement:

"Somehow, I felt [my wife’s] fingers on my leg. Shocked and excited, I opened my eyes only to realize it was a fly walking on me. I was greedy for human touch so I closed my eyes and pretended it was her fingers. I tried to stay perfectly still because I didn’t want to frighten the fly off and be left alone."

After that, Collins would bite his cheek and apply a mixture of his own blood and saliva onto his skin, to attract the flies that had become his only source of living touch.

The Need for Touch

Owing to smaller household sizes, greater migration, higher media consumption, longer life expectancies, and an increasing fear of touch, people today are more corporally isolated than at any other time in human history.

Just like we crave food when we are hungry, or crave sleep when we are tired, so we crave touch when we are lonely—for, at least historically, to be alone is to be exposed and vulnerable.

When someone is out of our social orbit, we do not say that we are out of sight, but out of touch; and we feel that we ought to reach out and make contact.

More than a mere superfluity or indulgence, human touch is, like food and sleep, a visceral need that is increasingly being met by third parties such as hairdressers, massage therapists, and even professional cuddlers.

During the covid lockdowns, it was not so much that people were lonely, since they could still interact at a distance or remotely, but that they could not physically touch one another, not even to shake hands. People who lived on their own may have gone for several months without any human touch at all—leading, among others, to a surge in demand for puppies.

Is Touch Taboo?

As a wine taster, I used to think that smell was the most neglected of our senses. But in our society, touch is even more so, because more taboo.

In the 1960s, Sidney Jourard, a psychologist at the University of Florida, observed the behaviour of couples in coffee shops around the world. He found that, in the space of an hour, couples in Puerto Rico touched each other 180 times. This compared to 110 times in Paris, just twice in Florida, and not at all in London. Jourard also found that French parents and their children touched one another three times more than their American counterparts.

The fear of touch in northern, Anglophone countries is deep-seated. In Victorian England and nineteenth-century America, people took to the language of flowers, or floriography, to fly feelings that could not otherwise have flown. In a book on child-rearing, first published in 1928, the influential American psychologist John B. Watson (made famous by his Little Albert experiment) advised:

Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight… In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.

Still today, many people flinch if the person returning their change accidentally brushes their hand—and that even before covid struck.

Men and Touch

The fear of touch is generally much greater in men. Touch is seen as soft and effeminate, and many men are keen to appear macho or at least masculine. With women, they worry that their touch will be interpreted as a sexual advance. With other men, they fear that it will raise questions about their sexuality, or that it will feel awkward, or that it will be rejected, or that they might enjoy it a little too much. With children, they fear that it might raise suspicions of paedophilia—especially now that many schools operate a strict no-touch policy.

So with the exception of handshakes and the occasional awkward ‘man hug’, men must forego touch, especially warm, intimate touch, simply to reassure everyone, and perhaps also themselves, that they are decent, manly men.

As they take their first steps out of the warm embrace of their parents, boys might try to meet their need for touch through rough interaction with other boys. As they grow older, they may, often out of sheer desperation, fumble into a relationship, putting all their physical needs into the hands of just one other young and inexperienced person.

This puts a lot of pressure on their partner and relationship, and reinforces the link, and ambiguation, between touch and sex. Our libido can be assuaged with our hand in a way that our craving for touch cannot: as every sex worker knows, many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin. But it is possible to separate the two, even with people to whom we feel sexually attracted.

The Benefits of Touch

To undermine the taboos surrounding it, I’m going to build a positive case for touch.

Touch is the most primitive of all the senses. It is the first sense to develop in utero and is already present from just eight weeks of gestation. With a surface area, in adults, of around two square metres, our skin is the largest organ in our body.

Source: Pixabay

In a controversial experiment of the 1950s, the psychologist Harry Harlow offered maternally deprived infant Rhesus macaques a choice between two inanimate surrogate mothers made of wire and wood: one bare, and the other covered in cloth. The monkeys preferred the cloth-covered surrogate to the bare one, even when the bare one carried a bottle of food.

In 1994, the neurobiologist Mary Carlson, one of Harlow’s former students, travelled to Romania with the psychiatrist Felton Earls to study the effects of severe deprivation on the decretei children who, in the years of Ceausescu, had been abandoned to understaffed orphanages. Typical findings included muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements, behaviours very similar to those observed in socially deprived primates.

Recent studies have reinforced the developmental importance of childhood physical contact, which has been associated with, among others, better performance on cognitive and physical tests, a stronger immune system, and reduced aggression. All other things being equal, premature infants that receive a course of massage therapy gain a lot more weight and spend less time in hospital.

It is possible, quite literally, to ‘hug someone better’. In adults, the benefits of touch include: reducing stress, lifting mood and self-esteem, strengthening interpersonal bonds, improving cognitive function, and boosting immune function. These effects are mediated by hormonal changes, not least a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol and a surge in the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin.

The benefits of touch accrue to the giver as much as to the receiver, for it is impossible to touch without also being touched: people who give out ‘free hugs’ in public places are, of course, also having their hugs returned.

Even self-massage reduces stress levels, which helps explain why we are constantly touching ourselves: wringing our hands, rubbing our forehead, brushing our hair and scalp, stroking our neck and upper back, and so on. Try it now and see for yourself…

Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more alone, more vulnerable, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts. Therapy animals have become common in care homes, and, despite a lifetime of reservations, residents can be encouraged to hold hands or rub each other’s shoulders.

The Uses of Touch

Just as we use speech and gestures to communicate, so we use touch. Words can say, ‘I love you’, but touch can also say how and how much, and, at the same time, ‘I respect you’, ‘I need you’, and ‘thank you’. For a long time, scientists thought that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear even to them that touch can be the message, and that it can be more nuanced and sophisticated than either speech or gestures, and more economical to boot. What’s more, touch is a two-way street, and a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us much more than their words ever could. Finally, while words can lie, or be taken for granted, primal touch is much more difficult to ignore or discount.

No surprise, then, that touch can also serve to convince and motivate, so long, of course, as it is natural and appropriate.

One study found that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm while making the request; but when the man kept his hand by his side, his success rate fell by as much as half.

Students who, upon returning a book, had their hand brushed by the librarian reported higher levels of satisfaction with the library and life in general, even when the touch went unnoticed.

NBA teams with players who touched one another more, for instance, by high-fiving or hugging, went on to win more games, with the more tactile players performing best.

Pupils who had been touched by a teacher tended to participate more in class activities (shame about those no-touch policies); patrons who had been touched by a waitress tended to tip her more generously; shoppers who had been touched by a store greeter tended to spend more time in the store…

As a psychiatrist, I try to shake hands with all my patients and often use comforting touch in moments of distress—almost invariably to good effect. Touch relaxes the patient, makes her feel that she has been seen and heard, and builds a bond of trust. It makes her, and me, feel more human, and, as a result, I think, we remember each other.

Read more in For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More.


Collins P: Fly in the Ointment., 13 July 2015.

Watson JB & Watson RA (1928): Psychological Care of Infant and Child. WW Norton & Company, Inc.

Carlson M & Earls F (1999): Psychological and endocrinological sequelae of early social deprivation in institutionalized children in Romania. In Carter CS et al (eds.): The Integrative Neurobiology of Affiliation. MIT Press.

Anthony J (2015): 39 percent of your coworkers masturbate at the office, according to our survey. TimeOut New York, 21 December 2015.

Kraus MW et al (2010): Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion 10(5):745-9.

Cruso AH & Wetzel CG (1984): The Midas touch: The effects of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 10:512-517.

Guéguen N (2004): Nonverbal encouragement of participation in a course: the effect of touching. Social Psychology of Education 7:89-98.

Stephen R & Zweigenhaft R (1985): The effect on tipping of a waitress touching male and female customers. Journal of Social Psychology 126:141-142.

Hornik J (1992): Tactile stimulation and consumer response. Journal of Consumer Research 19:449-458

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