Lost Touch

An article from The Guardian that’s been sitting in my backlog for a while (it was published back in January, 2021), Eleanor Morgan discusses “Lost touch: how a year without hugs affects our mental health“. It’s not a particularly long read, but does have some good links to research and other information about the impact not having enough human contact in your life can have.

As adults, we may not comprehend the importance of touch even when it disappears. “We might begin to realise that something is missing, but we won’t always know that it’s touch,” says Prof Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist based at Liverpool John Moores University and a leader in the field of affective touch. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness, we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.”

Certainly strikes true to me.

“Touch is a modulator that can temper the effects of stress and pain, physical and emotional. We have seen in our research that a lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” says [Dr. Katerina] Fotopoulou. “In times of high stress – the loss of a job, or a bereavement, for example – having more touch from others helps us cope better, particularly in calming the effects of [the stress hormone] cortisol.” Even if we’re used to not being touched a lot, after a while the need can feel very physical – sometimes described as “skin hunger” or “touch hunger”.

I also thought it was interesting to hear about CTs – nerves we have that are keyed for gentle contact:

The two square metres of skin that contain us are teeming with nerve fibres that recognise temperature, texture and itch, etc. One set of fibres exists purely to register gentle, stroking touch: the C tactile afferents (CTs). [Professor Francis] McGlone has been studying this since 1995, when it was discovered in humans. “These neurons, in the skin of all social mammals, transmit slow electrical signals to the emotional processing parts of the brain. They play a critical role in developing the social brain and our ability to withstand stress.”

I’ve discussed loneliness and depression on here before, it’s a bit of a recurring topic. I’ve seen and read other articles discussing the topic of the need for physical contact (and could have sworn I’d linked to some on here, though they seem to be escaping my search at the moment), and it’s something I’ve definitely given a lot of thought to – I’ve gone through various periods in my life where I had very little physical contact, and know from experience what a difference it can make on my general health, happiness, and wellbeing.

Loneliness and Technology

There’s been several recent articles about loneliness lately, spurred at least in part by the UK’s recent creation of a Minister of Loneliness to help cope with what’s been called an “epidemic of loneliness.” There are a lot of reasons why the surge in both quantity and severity of loneliness is a bad thing (aside from the mental and emotional impacts, it ends up having physical ramifications as well), and while I’d say it’s too broad a topic to point specific fingers at the causes, I do think modern society certainly isn’t helping. It’s sort of telling that (pulled from the above Medium article):

Research on young people’s loneliness isn’t abundant. But what does exist suggests loneliness might not go away anytime soon as a health crisis: A UCLA Berkeley study published last year found that even though adults between 21 and 30 had larger social networks, they reported twice as many days spent feeling lonely or socially isolated than adults between 50 and 70.

In other words, the generation portrayed as savvy, socially connected people are actually feeling the most alone.

A good book to read on the subject of the role technology has in all these (and I do definitely think it has a role) is Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. When it first came out a few years ago, I didn’t want to agree with her, but as time goes on, I fall more in alignment with her observations. (Here’s her related Ted Talk, which gives a good summary of the problems we’re talking about.) A quote from the Ted Talk that seems particularly relevant (emphasis mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating becoming a Luddite or something. We live in an age of technology, and it’s unrealistic (and ill-advised) to imagine that’s going to change. But I do think we need to change our relationship with that technology. I think we need to foster and teach empathy and emotional intelligence, and help people work through the anxieties of trying to communicate with others and meeting new people.

I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this subject (both loneliness in general, and our current social climate). I need to ponder some more about how best to express it.