Touch is the underdog of our senses. Vitally important to our mental and physical wellbeing, yet undervalued in a society that upgrades ‘touch-screens’ and downgrades skin-touches, we generally discuss touch when it is abusive or intrusive but speak less of it as a requisite need. Touch researchers have been speaking up for this underrated sense for years, hoping to influence the social-political attitude towards touch, and yet here we find ourselves in 2020 facing a pandemic in which touch has become the very sense that could sicken us.
Where before, we slipped troublesomely towards a touch-less society fixated more and more on our screens to meet our needs for human connection, now we move mindfully and safely towards the only means we have of reaching out to friends and family. The screen has been elevated as the only means of staying ‘in touch.’ Years ago, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was satirically re-drawn to include wifi as the most basic of human needs. Yet here we find that our wifi and our screens really have become a necessity. With loneliness and isolation posing a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity, without this technology during a pandemic we are significantly deprived and our wellbeing is at risk.
Staring into Zoom or FaceTime, we search to overcome the deprivation of our being physically untouchable by conveying with words that we are emotionally touchable. Yet many of us are feeling this just isn’t enough. Can we really touch someone, and feel touched by someone, who has become untouchable?
Enveloped in the womb, the foetus’s first developing sense is touch and one of its first vital experiences after birth will be to experience being touched by its mother. A baby may be fed by a bottle, as an alternative to the breast, but there is no alternative to being held. Babies depend for their survival on being touched and held with care. Holding is so vital to our development that babies who have been deprived of loving touch are at risk of physical, cognitive and psychological impairment.
Psychoanalysis has historically regarded this early holding as crucial for the development and wellbeing of the child, however, its significance reaches deeper than the physical act of touch alone. Donald Winnicott’s notion of early holding has been hugely influential within psychotherapy and child development. The mother who creates a healthy holding environment is not only holding her baby in her arms but she is holding him ‘in mind.’ Gently responding, cooing, talking to him when he cries, searching to understand his distress, soothing him, settling him, allowing him quiet. She may be exhausted, fed up, at times baffled and overwhelmed, because her task is complex, but her success at holding him both in her arms and in her mind will enable him to play, to feel soothed, and to rest, even in her absence. His healthy physical and emotional growth and development depends on being touched with care and concern, touched with her body but also her mind.
Touch is so vital, Ashley Montagu refers to it as “a basic behavioural need, much as breathing is a basic physical need.” Touch reduces pain, decreases cortisol, lowers blood pressure and boosts our immune system and emotional wellbeing. At a time when global health is under threat, can we afford to ignore our human instinct to touch one another, when the very simple act of a hand to hold when we are unwell, or a cuddle when we are depressed, can potentially boost recovery? Yet Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, offers words of hope: “Soothing touch is obviously powerful, but so too is a soothing facial expression or a kind word communicated in an attuned emotional state.” This emotional attunement is the ‘holding in mind’ that we first experience when our mother is able to respond well-enough to our emotional states, and later in adulthood we experience with those with whom we have formed a deep connection, whether that be a partner, friend or therapist.
Self-isolation does not equal social isolation. The latter refers to a dearth of social relationships and has been linked to deleterious effects on physical and mental health. With modern technology, self-isolation does not necessarily have to isolate us socially. If we can use technology to connect with colleagues, friends and family, we may be shielded, to some extent, from the harm done by being touch-deprived, separated from people we rely on for cuddles and connection. There is no mind without a body, and touching one affects the other. The mind is embodied. Feeling understood, feeling held in mind, feeling valued and validated, is still possible if we are able to connect with a loving, compassionate partner, friend or relative, even when that connection must be mediated through a screen.
Connecting through the screen is no substitute for physical touch and face-to-face contact, with all its subtleties. It loses the immediacy of being together in space and time. It lags, it disturbs, it interrupts. It cannot negate the loss of togetherness. Yet it can, to an extent, transcend the boundaries of space and time, enabling two people at a physical distance to feel close. Presence in mind translates through presence on screen, subverting absence. In a pandemic, it may be all we have to balance the danger of being close enough to physically touch with the risks to our health posed by being separated and solitary.